The Flemish Peace Institute is an independent
institute for peace research at the Flemish Parliament.

Saudi Arabia the prime market for Belgian arms exports in 2011

The Walloon government recently published its annual report concerning the Region’s foreign arms trade in 2011. Now that almost all figures from the Belgian regions have been reported, the Flemish Peace Institute is able to draw up an overall picture of the arms exports of Belgium in the course of the past year. Belgian licensed arms exports totalled EUR 879.7 million in 2011. Notable is the fact that, during the past few years, we have witnessed a shift in the ranking of recipient regions: in 2011, the Middle East region occupies first place for the first time, followed by Europe and North America. It is especially Saudi Arabia that has purchased massive quantities of Belgian arms: the country’s purchases account for nearly one-third of Belgian arms exports.

In 2011, Belgian Regions issued arms export licences in the amount of EUR 879.7 million

The competence to oversee foreign arms exports in Belgium has since 2003 been assigned to the individual regions. The Flemish, Walloon, and Brussels Capital Regions are currently responsible for issuing licences for the import and export of military equipment. Now that also the Walloon Region has reported on its licensing practices in 2011, we are given insight into the total Belgian arms export conducted in the course of the past year: together, the Regions issued arms export licences totalling EUR 879.7 million, three quarters of that being for Wallonia’s account (EUR 644.1 million). Flanders accounts for the remainder (EUR 200.9 million), complemented further by a minor share of Brussels export and export by the Belgian armed forces.

The Middle East is the prime market for Belgian arms exports

It appears from the 2011 licensing figures that the Middle East is the prime market for Belgian military equipment (36%), followed by Europe (32%) and North America (17%). It is especially for exports to Saudi Arabia that an inordinate number of licences were issued: the country accounts for no less than 29% of total Belgian arms export (EUR 253.4 million). This pertains especially to firearms, ammunition, and army vehicles.

Wallonia: military firearms, with danger of undesirable proliferation

The defence industries in the Flemish and Walloon Regions differ fundamentally. The Walloon defence industry has been particularly geared to the export of ‘conventional’ firearms and explosives, with FN Herstal being the standard bearer. Such finished products are being exported worldwide and in the process also find their way to conflict regions. The end users of the Walloon arms are generally known at the time of export, but there is more than ample evidence to show that guarantees and controls are not adequate measures to prevent the re-export and rerouting of arms shipments. As such, Belgian arms make their way to the Al-Quds brigades in Gaza, to Congolese rebels, or to militia groups in Mali.

Flanders: high-tech components of unknown end use

Flanders specializes in high-tech components for larger weapon systems. The initial recipients of these components are often the defence giants within the EU and the USA. The ultimate end use of the materials remains in two-third of the cases unknown at the time of the issuance of the Flemish licences. “Yet, the end use represents the core element in the control of arms exports: what is the ultimate destination of the military materials and what is to be their ultimate use?” Tomas Baum, Director of the Flemish Peace Institute, ponders such questions. “It will require additional efforts and application in order to formulate an adequate estimation of the real end use of Flemish military materials and equipment.

Saudi Arabia as the prime customer for Belgian arms raises questions

The fact that Saudi Arabia is currently such a major buyer of Belgian arms raises questions. “Not only are there ever more threatening regional tensions and a precarious human rights situation in that country, it is also known that Saudi Arabia is using arms deliveries to serve its regional interests,” says Tomas Baum. “For instance, at present, there is a European embargo in force against Syria. Saudi Arabia isn’t loath to admit it is arming militant groups within Syria and, yet, a lot of arms exports to Saudi Arabia are being licensed regardless. In the light of consistent European regulations concerning arms exports, this clearly presents us with a problem.” These kinds of concrete cases can only further exacerbate the already tense relationship between economic interests and endeavours aimed at ensuring peace and security. This is an issue that not only affects regional interests within Belgium but likewise has great bearing on Belgium’s and Europe’s foreign policy.