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Story highlights

Middle East countries are top recipients of weapons

The U.S. accounts for one third of global arms sales

(CNN) —  

With the end of the U.S. arms embargo, Vietnam will join a long list of international recipients of American armaments.

The U.S. is responsible for nearly 33% of worldwide exports – by far the top arms exporter on the planet – but which countries does the U.S. sell the most weapons to?

Saudi Arabia was the top recipient of American-made arms from 2011-2015, followed closely by the United Arab Emirates, according to research compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which has been analyzing international arms transfers since 1968.

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The rest of the top 10 included Turkey, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, India, Singapore, Iraq, and Egypt.

Experts believe the Middle East will remain a top destination for weapons for some time – it currently accounts for about 40% of U.S. arms exports – especially given the rise of ISIS.

“The dynamic of the [falling] oil prices has been overwhelmed by the deep insecurity these countries are currently feeling and the insecure future they feel they face,” Andrew Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN.

Hunter, the director of the defense-industrial initiatives group, said that the countries in the region were “prioritizing defense” over other spending.

The American exports include everything from small arms to fighter jet aircraft and tanks, to Patriot Missile batteries.

Several Asian countries are also represented high up on the arms sales list, reflecting ongoing tensions with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs and China’s stepped up military activity in the South China Sea.

The tightening of U.S.-Vietnam relations comes as Vietnam has protested China’s actions in its nearby waters, including an incident where China stationed an oil rig in disputed waters off of Vietnam’s coast in 2014, an event that sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam.

The day after the US. announced it would lift its arms embargo against Vietnam, Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Vietnam needs the military equipment it will get in order to defend itself.

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While most of the top importers use their own money to buy arms from the U.S., the U.S. also provides some countries with grants and loans – separate from the arms sales – to purchase defense equipment from American manufacturers, as part of a program called Foreign Military Financing.

The State Department’s 2017 budget request includes approximately $5.7 billion for Foreign Military Financing.

In the proposed budget, the top five recipients of American foreign military financing will be Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt ($1.3 billion), Jordan ($350 million), Pakistan ($265 million), and Iraq ($150 million).

While Israel is supposed to spend this money on U.S. arms, some of that country’s most expensive purchases, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, have yet to be delivered and are therefore not reflected in SIPRI’s statistics.

While the Middle East tops the list, funding for African armies in 2017 will more than double from last year, likely a consequence of increased terrorist activity in places like Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria.

Hunter said that U.S. defense companies were explicit in their desire to boost international exports in the wake of recent defense budget cuts.

At a media day event in March, the CEO of U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson, said, “One area where we expect the majority of our growth potential to come from in the years ahead is our international customers.”

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Other major arms exporters after the U.S. include Russia, China, France, and Germany.

While Hunter said Russia will always have a market for its “cheaper” arms exports to countries that are accustomed to Soviet-era weaponry, he sees China as being increasingly active in the international market.

“You are seeing more and more Chinese at arms shows trying to compete with the U.S.,” he said.

China has upped its share of global arms exports by over 60% compared to the 2006-2010 period, according to SIPRI.

One area where China has been particularly active is drone technology, with reports of China exporting drones to Nigeria, Iraq, and Pakistan.

He added that China was facing challenges to growing its market share due to increased tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea, as many of the countries in the region, like Vietnam, are also amongst the fastest-growing markets for arms exports.