Guns, Not Butter

The Middle East, in spite of its oil wealth, includes some of the world’s poorest countries. Millions of its people live on the margins, in urban shantytowns and impoverished villages. Yet the region spends far more on “guns” than on “butter,” far more on the military than on all development programs combined. If every country in the world is ranked by how much it spends on the military per person, seven of the top ten spenders are in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Kuwait, Libya and Iraq. In the decade after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Middle East countries spent over half a trillion dollars on the military — almost half of it on weapons, advice and construction services purchased from abroad.

A Region at War

At the end of 1986, Egypt’s defense minister said that “one out of every two Middle Eastern states is involved in conflicts or violence.” In the seven years since the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed, armed conflicts have killed at least half a million people and wounded at least 3 million. The bloodiest of these is the Iran-Iraq war. No one knows exactly how many have died in the more than six years of fighting. A single, bitter, two-week battle in January 1987 may have killed and wounded as many as 50,000 to 70,000 people. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the ongoing civil war there account for many more dead and wounded. Kurds fighting for autonomy from Iraq, Western Saharans fighting for independence from Morocco, Eritreans fighting the Ethiopian government, civil wars in Sudan and Chad, and the seven-year war in Afghanistan have affected millions more.

Militarized Societies

More people in the Middle East work for the military than in any other kind of job except farming. In the cities, military jobs top the list. In the Middle East as a whole, one out of every 50 people is a soldier, but in some countries the ratio is much more extreme. In Saudi Arabia, between 10 and 30 percent of all working Saudi Arabian men have military jobs, in addition to thousands of Pakistani mercenary soldiers and hundreds of American military advisers. If irregular forces (like the Revolutionary Guards in Iran) and militias (like those in Lebanon) are included with regular soldiers, there may be as many as 10 million people in military service in the Middle East. The majority of Middle Eastern states are themselves controlled or strongly influenced by the military. And these military-controlled governments often violate the political and human rights of their citizens.

US Aid

US taxpayers provide billions of dollars per year to support the militarization of Middle East economies. From 1982 to 1985, the US loaned or gave over $23 billion to Middle East countries to buy US-made weapons and to support their military and security establishments. Most of this went to Israel ($9.9 billion), Egypt ($8 billion), Pakistan and Turkey. In the same period, Saudi Arabia bought nearly $14 billion worth of US arms.

Planning for US Intervention

The Pentagon has set up a military force called Central Command specifically to intervene in the Middle East. In a major crisis, Central Command could call up 350,000 troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The main obstacle the Pentagon faces is that almost all of these troops are based in the United States. Getting them “over there” and keeping them supplied with food, water and ammunition is a major operation. It requires access to air fields and ports both in the Middle East and en route.

Over the years, the Pentagon has secured rights to bases and facilities from Morocco to Pakistan, from Turkey to Kenya. By 1990, the Pentagon plans to have spent some $14 billion on these bases — the largest such construction program since the end of the Vietnam War. Over the last few years, for instance, the US has spent $300 million upgrading bases in Oman, including housing for US pilots, and stocking 10 million gallons of jet fuel and other war supplies. Washington appears to be exploiting Egypt’s desperate economic straits to secure US rights to two air bases in Sinai. Five thousand US troops are stationed in Turkey, a NATO country, and five of the bases there store nuclear weapons. Another 2,500 US troops are based in Egypt.

Middle East Arms Market

Middle Eastern countries are the best customers in the Third World for arms sellers. The United States and Western Europe make 80 percent and the Soviet Union nearly 70 percent of their Third World weapons sales in the Middle East. Iraq buys more than any other customer. In the years 1981 to 1985, eight Middle Eastern nations — Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan — together bought half of all weapons sold to the Third World.

Just as important as the quantity of arms the Middle East buys is their sophistication. The US and the Soviet Union usually refuse to sell top-of-the line weapons to anyone but their NATO or Warsaw Pact allies. The Middle East is a major exception. The Soviet Union has sold sophisticated MiG-29 fighter jets to Syria and Iraq. The United States sells high-tech weapons systems used by NATO to five Middle Eastern states — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Morocco. And the more sophisticated the system, the more foreign advisers and technicians that must go with it.

Selling arms to the Third World is good business for US corporations. If they can sell weapons around the world as well as to the Pentagon, corporations can reduce the unit cost of weapons and keep the production lines open longer. Arms sales abroad make up about 5 percent of total US export earnings. Three top firms won over $1 billion each in foreign military sales contracts in 1985 alone. In the last two years, the Middle East arms market has stopped growing. First, falling oil prices have forced military budget cuts (though Iran and Iraq are buying more and more arms to wage their war). Second, many markets are saturated and arsenals stocked to capacity. Third, some of what was imported is now produced locally. (Israel is now the ninth-ranked arms exporter in the world.) Middle East countries buy more foreign technology or parts for assembly, but fewer finished products.

Nuclear Shadow

Nowhere in the world are the US and the Soviet Union more likely to come to blows than over the Middle East. Rebels with US arms and funds already fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Nuclear-armed US and Soviet warships regularly patrol the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. The US stores nuclear weapons in Turkey. Both the US and the Soviet Union have facilities and military advisers scattered through the region, which borders the Soviet Union and lies on the “southern flank” of NATO. Even without a drop of oil, the Middle East would be a strategic prize. President after president has warned that the US is willing to go to war to preserve its influence in the region. The trigger that could escalate a Middle Eastern conflict to global war is a hair trigger.

Middle Eastern Nuclear Powers

Israel is now the sixth-ranking nuclear power in the world, and probably has been for at least a decade. Though it continues to deny it, Israel has at least 100, and perhaps as many as 200 nuclear weapons. In October 1986, an Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, told the London Sunday Times that he had worked in a secret, underground Israeli bomb factory for nine years. Israel owns a fleet of fighter aircraft which can deliver nuclear bombs. Its own Jericho missile can boost nuclear warheads over 400 miles. Israel has shared nuclear information with South Africa for many years, and probably tested a nuclear device with that country in 1979.

Pakistan is the only other Middle Eastern nation that could soon build its own nuclear weapons. In 1986, Pakistan could produce its own weapons-grade nuclear material, one of the hardest steps to building a bomb. While it probably has not yet put together a bomb, Pakistan is now on the nuclear threshold.

Libya and Iraq are both interested in nuclear weapons, but neither can yet build them. Iraq has developed chemical weapons and actually used mustard gas shells against Iranian troops. Syria, Libya, Israel, Ethiopia and Egypt have all been accused of developing or possessing chemical weapons, but no reports have been confirmed.

How to cite this article:

"Living by the Sword: A Primer," Middle East Report 144 (January/February 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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