As tensions rise, so do weapons prices

Originally published on Jun 20th 2012 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BEIRUT: Plenty of Lebanese keep a gun or two at home; some are leftovers from the 1975-90 Civil War, others for protection. But when tension rises, many rush to replace their hunting rifles with newer weapons and stock up on ammunition.

Weapons are not immune to the basic laws of supply and demand, and as demand increases, so do prices. Several dealers who work out of Beirut’s southern suburbs recently explained the ups and downs of their trade to The Daily Star, speaking on condition of anonymity. All said that the Syrian uprising, now in its 15th month, has brought more customers and an explosion in prices.

The spike in demand was not immediate, reported one dealer who calls himself Abu Ali. “At first when the events started in Syria [last March], the regime was so strong no one was expecting a struggle,” he said. “Three months later, things changed,” and more people began looking to buy.

He and his partner rattled off the current and past prices of popular weapons, which corresponded fairly well with those of another Beirut-based dealer. One Russian-made Kalashnikov, a popular weapon, now costs as much as $2,000. Before the Syrian crisis, the same gun went for around $900-$1,000. Similar makes manufactured in other countries, such as China, go for less.

The make is widely available, if the dealers’ word and the assortment they display are anything to go by.

Before the Syrian unrest, each Kalashnikov bullet cost LL300 (around 20 U.S. cents), and now, depending on the dealer and the time, each can cost as much as $2.

The prices of practically all types of weapons have risen, including M16s, M4s, and guns that only fire blanks.

Although the Syrian situation, and presumably the fear of a Lebanese spillover, seems behind the surge in demand, more local events also push some to arm up. Following the late-May kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Syria, gun prices rose slightly. There was also a run on ammunition and grenades when the pilgrims were not quickly released.

One hand grenade, which Abu Ali handled with ease on the table in his home, is now priced between $40-$60. Previously, it was between $3-$5. In general, anxiety pushes up demand and prices, the dealers said.

There are plenty of arms dealers working in the market, which leaves space for bargaining. Abu Ali described buyers negotiating on Kalashnikov prices by playing dealers against each other. “Competition becomes more fierce” when events heat up, a dealer said.

Some people don’t have space to bargain: Abu Ali said he can sell a Kalashnikov to a Syrian for $1,000 more than to a Lebanese, because “you can take advantage of the situation.”

In addition, as the country is divided along sectarian lines, it seems suppliers are too. Abu Ali professed no political affiliation aside from sympathy for resistance against Israel. But when asked if he would sell arms to a person who said they wished to fight against the Syrian regime, his rejoinder was “they wouldn’t come here.”

Although unspoken, the implication is that such fighters would be Sunni, and have their own channels for obtaining weapons. Drivers of demand also appear to be sectarian, as dealers in the mostly Shiite southern suburbs did not report a surge in customers after fighting in Tariq al-Jadideh last month.

Abu Ali also acknowledged that he can’t, and doesn’t attempt, to track down where his goods go. “I don’t know who they [customers] will use a gun against,” he said. “Some people come and say ‘I want to protect my family and my home.’ They don’t tell you ‘I am with Fatah or Hamas,’ they just say I want to protect myself.”

“Personally, I carry a pistol to protect myself,” he said, directing his attention to the security feed on a big screen TV, and not to the handgun hanging out of his pocket.

Heavier weaponry, such as the RPG launchers used in the nighttime Tariq al-Jadideh battle and in the recent clashes in Tripoli, have also shot up in price. The launchers themselves, once a mere $70, now go for $1,500 to $2,000. The rockets themselves have leapt from $100 to $800. Light mortars are also oft-requested and prices have increased by more than 400 percent.

Dealers report some difficulty in finding RPGs. Also hard to find, and much desired, are Soviet Siminov-designed semiautomatic rifles from the World War II era. Once collector’s items, they are now sought by amateur snipers for their accuracy and because they require relatively little technological know-how.

But in general, it seems that at least for the time being, Lebanon has weapons aplenty. As Abu Ali put it, “You might run out of bread in Lebanon, but you won’t run out of weapons.” – with additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh