US is world's top arms supplier, Saudi Arabia top importer

More than a third of the global arms sold worldwide during the past five years originated in the United States, underscoring its role as the world’s top weapons seller,  the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) announced on Monday.

The US accounted for 37% of global arms sales during the 2016-2020 period, and sold arms to 96 countries. Half of its sales went to the Middle East, SIPRI added. US exports also increased 15% compared to the 2011-2105 period.

Global volumes of arms transfers were stable in the five-year period, SIPRI said of the 0.5-per-cent dip compared with 2011-2015, noting they were on level with Cold War highs, according to its latest review of global arms transfers. 

"It is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over," said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI arms and military expenditure programme.

Although 2020 - the year of the coronavirus pandemic - saw a 16-per-cent drop year-on-year in the value of global arms transfers, SIPRI was cautious regarding fluctuations in a single year or attributing the decline to the pandemic.

There were disruptions in supply chains also in the arms industry, but most orders were placed before 2020, and "several countries placed very significant deals during the pandemic," Wezeman told dpa.

He noted that Poland, Japan and Germany, for instance, placed large orders for combat aircraft in 2020. 

Half of the US exports went to the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia alone accounted for one-fourth of US exports, making it the country's single most important market. US arms exports increased its sales by 15%.

Wezeman said it remained to be seen if the new US administration under President Joe Biden would revise export policies to Saudi Arabia. Although the US has signalled a tougher stance on exporting guided bombs used in the Yemen conflict, it "looks very unlikely that the US would stop the supply of advanced combat aircraft or ships," he said.

Saudi Arabia remained the world's top importer, with 11% of the global total. Britain and France were other large sources, but Britain's global share of exports has dropped with the completion of large deliveries of combat aircraft to Saudi Arabia. 

Russia, the world's second-largest exporter with one-fifth of global arms deliveries, sold weapons to 45 countries. More than half of Russia's exports went to India, China and Algeria. Russia's exports, however, declined by a fifth compared to the previous five-year period. The decrease was "primarily due to the significant drop in their sales to India," Wezeman said.

India - the world's second largest importer - was seeking to diversify its arms suppliers and build up a domestic capacity.

France was the third-largest exporter, on 8%, and recorded several large deals with, among others, India, Egypt and Qatar including combat aircraft and navy vessels, the institute said.

Germany and China were also among the five main exporters. The top five accounted for three quarters of global arms exports.

China supplied major arms to 51 countries, but several large markets are closed over political reasons, including India, Japan and Australia.

China's exports were down almost 8% compared to the previous period and it has not succeeded in making sizeable inroads in the Middle East, according to SIPRI.

Asia and Oceania was the top arms-importing region, with 42% of arms imports in 2016-2020. The Middle East region's share of global arms imports was about 33%. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were among the world's top 10 importers.

The institute uses a five-year cycle to even out fluctuations caused by a big order during any specific year.

The arms transfers database does not include small arms and is based on public sources ranging from national and regional newspapers to specialized international journals, as well as government and industry reports.

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