The Middle East is in the grips of an arms spiral that threatens long-term peace and economic progress. Although burdened by poverty and a growing population, the region is beating plowshares into swords as military expenditures and arms imports mount at an alarming pace, arms experts say. Today, the Middle East spends a high 16 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on defense. It accounts for more than 42 percent of total world arms imports.
Contributing to the buildup are massive arms flows from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and other nations.
``The rate of military expansion in the Middle East has reached the point where the real problem the nations in the region face with `modernization' is not such cultural issues as `Westernization' but the practical threat of `militarization,''' says Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading specialist on the Mideast military balance.
Dr. Cordesman notes that:
Total real military expenditures have tripled since the October war of 1973, growing from $24 billion in 1973 to $61 billion in 1983 (in constant 1982 dollars). The average annual rate of increase -- 7.8 percent -- was more than double the rate for NATO and Warsaw Pact outlays.
Some $542 billion was spent on arms in this 10-year period. About $122 billion of this (23 percent) went for imported arms.
From the time of the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement in 1979 to 1983, the region imported $65 billion worth of arms. This includes 7,700 main battle tanks, 11,500 armored personnel carriers, 11,300 field-artillery pieces, 1,700 combat aircraft, and 11,000 surface-to-air missiles.
The number of soldiers in uniform has about doubled since 1973, from 1.3 million to 2.1 million in 1983. Adding the irregular, revolutionary, and popular armed forces, between 6 and 10 percent of the area's 145 million people are involved in military activity.