Major arms makers are attending a weapons show in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, hoping to seal deals with militaries across the Middle East.
At the opening, the UAE revealed that it had signed $1.36bn in local and foreign arms deals to supply its forces with everything from South African drones to Serbian artillery.
Although the figure surpasses the 2019 show’s opening announcement, defence experts anticipate a drop in military spending this year as the pandemic and slumping global oil prices squeeze budgets in the Gulf region.
The biennial trade fair, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, is Abu Dhabi’s first big in-person event since the outbreak of the coronavirus – a sign of its significance to the city that has maintained tight movement restrictions in recent months.
The 70,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors rely on the largest weapons expo in the Middle East to buy and sell the latest wares, from armoured vehicles to ballistic missiles.
Top Emirati officials, including Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, were on hand on Sunday, wandering between displays of rifles, rockets and bombs.
But with hand sanitiser as ubiquitous as sterile drone displays, the pandemic’s effects remained visible. Significant national pavilions were absent, including the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter.
Big American companies turned up but kept a low profile. Lockheed Martin representatives standing beside models of stealth F-35 fighters were tight-lipped amid the Biden administration’s review of several significant foreign arms sales initiated by former President Donald Trump, including a massive $23bn transfer of the F-35s to the UAE.
Israel’s COVID-19 restrictions also prevented it from joining the expo, which would have been a first after it normalised relations with the UAE last year.
But scores of other countries attended, underscoring how many have boosted their arms exports in the region. The flow of weapons in the Middle East has increased by 61 percent over the past five years, according to a recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, amid grinding proxy wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
China, which boasts the world’s second-largest arms-manufacturing industry, enticed passers-by with a lifesized ballistic missile called “Fire Dragon”.
At state-owned Norinco, business manager Luo Haopeng remarked that China had increased its floor space this year. Beyond his company “serving” Emirati ground forces, he declined to elaborate on its ambitions in the Middle East, where China has already has sold armed drones to Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
At Russia’s pavilion, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov inspected a vast array of Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Not far away, Poland’s WB Group showed glitzy sales videos of its “suicide drone” plummeting from great heights to blast away armoured vehicles. Azerbaijan had shown interest in the system during its border conflict with Armenia last year, communications director Marta Lazewska said, when Turkish drones helped turn the tide in its favour.
At the pavilion for Saudi Arabia, ranked the world’s largest weapons importer over the last five years, officials were trying to promote the kingdom as an emerging defence giant under its “Vision 2030”.
The programme, pushed by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to break the country’s import addiction, diversify its economy away from oil, and localise more than half of its military spending.
Despite its radar and US Patriot missile batteries, Saudi Arabia increasingly has been at risk of cross-border attack by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who earlier this month launched bomb-laden drones that slammed into an empty passenger plane at Abha Airport in the country’s southwest.
A Saudi-led military coalition has been at war with the Houthis since 2015, after the rebels overthrew the Saudi-backed government from the capital, Sanaa. The conflict has created what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“The threats are obvious lately,” said Walid Abukhaled, CEO of Saudi Arabian Military Industries Company, a holding company owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
“You have drones that are coming from aggressive countries… You have some missiles fired every now and then.”
‘Flex its muscles’
Routine attacks and rising tensions with Iran could help fuel military spending in the region even as defence intelligence provider IHS Janes expects such expenditures in the Gulf to drop 9.4 percent to $90.6bn in 2021 – a result of the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic.
“We’ve come back to the early part of 2020 where again Iran is a potentially big threat,” said Charles Forrester, senior analyst at Janes, referring to a series of escalating incidents that pushed the US and Iran to the brink of war last year.
“If Iran goes into a major rearmament programme or starts to flex its muscles, that’s where missile defence and air defence systems come in,” he said. “As we’ve seen, a very simple system can attack you.”