Tensions grow in West Asia, a heavily militarised region: Data

West Asia accounts for 30% of the global arms imports and spends the most on the military among all other regions

May 03, 2024 09:30 am | Updated 09:30 am IST

A drone view of the remains of a ballistic missile, as it lies in the desert following a massive missile and drone attack by Iran on Israel

A drone view of the remains of a ballistic missile, as it lies in the desert following a massive missile and drone attack by Iran on Israel | Photo Credit: YAIR PALTI

West Asia supplies the most extractive resources for the world’s energy consumption, which makes peace an imperative in the region. Yet tensions are escalating in the region on account of the Israel-Gaza conflict, the hostilities between Iran and Israel, and the attacks and counter-attacks between Israel and Iran-backed militias from Lebanon and Yemen.

Apart from this, the region has also become one of the most heavily militarised in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers 2023’, four of the top 10 largest importers of arms last year were from West Asia, with the U.S. being the main supplier (Table 1).

All this has resulted in West Asia becoming a powder keg.

Table 1 | The table lists the top suppliers of arms to West Asian countries. Figures in %.

Table appears incomplete? Click to remove AMP mode

Crises in the region

Israel’s shadow war with Tehran underwent a dramatic escalation recently. Iran launched its first-ever full-scale military attack against Israel on April 14 in retaliation to the Benjamin Netanyahu government’s attack on April 1 on an Iranian compound in Syria in which General Mohammed Reza Zehadi, the top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed.

Also read: A new low: On Israel’s Gaza war and the U.S. response

Israel has been continuing its attacks on the Gaza Strip in response to the October 7 Hamas attack which led to the death of 1,139 people. Nearly 34,000 Palestinians have been killed so far. The conflict persists despite the international community urging for an immediate ceasefire. The 10-month-long Gaza war and the amping up of Iran-Israel hostilities has caused concern among international actors amid existing tensions such as the unresolved Yemeni civil war, the Lebanese political crisis, the 14-year-long Syrian civil war, and the Turkey-Cyprus conflict, among others.

Chart 2 | The chart shows region-wise military expenditure as a share of their GDP.

Amid these crises, West Asia today accounts for almost 30% of the global arms imports and spends the most on the military among all other regions in the world. In the case of military expenditure as a share of the GDP, West Asia and North Africa have been consistently leading for over three decades now, though the share has come down from the peak of over 10% of GDP, reported in the 1990s. West Asia spent 4.6% of its GDP in 2020 on the military, compared with 3.3% in North America.

Share of GDP

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the oil and natural gas rich nation-states, have consistently spent over 5% of their GDP on defence in recent years, the highest among countries in this region. Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Israel have also spent close to 5% of their GDP on their militaries in the last decade.

Chart 3 | The chart shows the military expenditure as a share of GDP for individual countries in the West Asian region.

Though Saudi Arabia and Oman’s shares are on a decreasing trend, they continue to lead others in the world in this measure.

Chart 4 | The chart shows the share of labour force employed in the armed forces.

This is also the region where the share of the labour force employed in the armed forces is the highest. Chart 4 shows that 2.5% of the labour force is engaged in the military in the West Asian and North African region, compared with only 1.2% in Europe and Central Asia.

The consistent demand for arms can be attributed to the growing instability in the region fuelled by domestic insurgencies, transnational terrorist attacks, unstable regional boundaries, and, in some cases, foreign policies and the need to project “hard power”.

The hangover of the ‘Arab Spring’ that led to a lot of churning and resulted in the aforementioned issues has also contributed to the increased militarisation.

Watch our data video: Watch | Key questions remain unanswered in electoral bonds controversy

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