The global trade in heavy weapons has skyrocketed to its highest level since the Cold War, with arms sales to the Middle East surging, a new report says.

The five biggest exporters - the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany - accounted for 74 percent of total arms exports, according to research published on Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In the Middle East, arms imports jumped by 86 percent between 2012 and 2016, accounting for 29 percent of global weapons purchases. The increase was nearly double from the previous five-year period studied.

Saudi Arabia was the world's second largest arms importer in 2012-16 with an increase of 212 percent on 2007–11. Weapon imports by neighbouring Qatar , meanwhile, surged 245 percent.

The majority of other states in the Middle East also increased arms imports, although at a lower rate than the Gulf nations.

"Despite low oil prices, countries in the region continued to order more weapons in 2016, perceiving them as crucial tools for dealing with conflicts and regional tensions," Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, told Al Jazeera.

"Saudi Arabia and the UAE take the lead in what is one of their first efforts to intervene in a neighbouring country [ Yemen ] all by themselves, and they can do so because over the years they have acquired these large amounts of advanced weapons."

Conflicts in Syria , Iraq and Yemen have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past few years.

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Governments around the world spent $1.57 trillion on "defence" purchases in 2016, according to Jane's Defence Budgets. 

India was the world's largest importer of major arms in 2012-16, accounting for 13 percent of the global total - far greater than regional rivals China and Pakistan, SIPRI reported.

"With no regional arms control instruments in place, states in Asia continue to expand their arsenals," said Wezeman.

"While China is increasingly able to substitute arms imports with indigenous products, India remains dependent on weapons technology from many willing suppliers, including Russia , the US, European states, Israel and South Korea."

In Africa, Algeria was the largest arms importer, accounting for 46 percent of all weapons sales on the continent. Nigeria , Sudan and Ethiopia were the largest buyers of heavy weapons in sub-Saharan Africa .

Source: Al Jazeera News