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Arms and the men

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The flame of international conflict rises from egotistic minds, but is fed through a steady supply of arms. Today, when international trade is in trouble, we need to find those who want to perpetuate the battles

By Sujit Bhar

The war and conflicts that have erupted across the Middle East threaten to engulf a major part of the world, affecting trade and commerce. Experts say there is a distinct possibility of this spiralling out of control to create a situation where every basic commodity could be pricier, where every country may be in the line of fire and the world economy might suffer immeasurably.

The principal problem started with the Hamas attacks into Israel and the unthinkable Israeli revenge that have all but flattened all of the Gaza Strip and have also affected the West Bank. Much of the world, even those who were, till the other day, in awe of the atrocities that Jews suffered during the holocaust, have come out against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hezbollah got into the act from Lebanon, firing missiles from the north into Israel, and quickly there was a multiple front war for Israel. Iran-backed ultras generally camp all around Israel, and despite the big talk of the Israeli Defence Force, that isn’t a happy place.

The USA got into the act, sending warships near Israel for help, but by then the Houthi rebels from Yemen also got into the act. Hezbollah and the Houthis are better equipped than Hamas and do pose a problem for Israel.

However, the biggest challenge came when Houthis started targeting merchant ships going through the Suez Canal. The Houthis have promised to target all Israeli and US flag-flying ships, and in the process have also attacked Indian merchant ships. Now India has had to send warships to the area and it is all a big mess.

The US has bombarded Houthis in Yemen, the Israelis have struck Hezbollah in Lebanon and, in that midst, Iran fired missiles into Pakistan, destroying some Baloch rebels, with Pakistan retaliating into Iran as well.

Just the other day, with the help of Chinese coaxing, Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to move away from hostilities against each other, for the time being, and the world was waiting for a deal with the Israelis as well. This time, the US was also involved and it was expected that this deal would be much better than the failed Oslo Accord of 1993. That idea now resides in the deep ocean.

The world has suddenly become strangely polarised, again, and these conflicts could end up affecting the world in more ways than what the continuing Russia-Ukraine conflict did.

What is happening is that ships are now beginning to avoid the Suez Canal and the strategic Bab al-Mandab chokepoint and are starting to go round the Cape of Good Hope to reach Asia and Europe, increasing shipping miles by the thousands. That not only results in higher prices of commodities on ships, but possibly also in deteriorating condition of perishables. The prices will surely be out of the common man’s reach in this wintry northern hemisphere.

The Ukraine-Russia war has seen two major fallouts. The first, of course, was the cutting off of cheap gas supply from Russia to Europe, especially to Germany, and the second was the almost complete stoppage of export of high quality Ukrainian wheat to Europe. These were the first economic disasters that Europe, at the instigation of the US, has had to suffer.

While those problems persist, these new conflicts in the Middle East, precipitated in the main by Israel, have only added to the woes of the world. While the Ukrainian fallout may have been somewhat contained within the boundaries of Europe, with fuel hungry China and India eking out different routes to access crude, the current spate of conflicts have the potential to affect world trade and commerce as we know it.

Not very surprisingly, there is a common thread that connects the two situations: the US defence armament manufacturing industry and its powerful lobbies. While normal trade and commerce grows and flourishes in peacetime, the business of selling arms can be perpetuated if conflicts are perpetuated. Whether it be Ukraine or Israel, it is clear who the instigators are. And this has disrupted world commerce.

The world can come together and try to pen many more accords, quite like the failed Oslo Accord, but if the root of the problem is not addressed, the issues inherent will come up again.

The issue is being discussed ad nauseam across think-tanks and from other crucial official observation decks. However, what is being analysed are Houthi movements, Houthi strategies and how to combat them. This is necessary, but the underlying deviousness has already been laid thick by another class of evil, who had tasted blood since Vietnam and are now irrepressible.

The common, Western refrain is interesting. When conflicts rise, fight the symptoms, the rootless Hamas or the foolishly adventurous Houthis, and such. Let the root cause remain untouched, because that is a milch cow, yielding a rich return on investment. Look a little deeper and, maybe, one will find these Houthis using the same weapons that this huge defence industrial complex is spewing out. Only, the chassis numbers and brand markings would have been filed out.

That is nothing new. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Saudi businessman and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi armed opposing sides with elan. And arms manufacturers went head over heels to appease Khashoggi. Every conflict on the African continent has been funded and armed by arms dealers who bought from Russian (Soviet, before that), American or British manufacturers and distributed them without discrimination.

The system was so successful that much of it has remained, untouched by law. The manufacturers get into action themselves only when the consignment size exceeds certain critical levels. That is when governments help them out.

Now the list of manufacturers is very long. A Small Arms Survey estimated that 875 million small arms circulate worldwide, produced by more than 1,000 companies from nearly 100 countries. Each needs a market, and an ongoing conflict is the best bank for such investments.

We need to look deeper to be able to keep our heads above the water.

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