Hobnobbing with military chiefs and rubbing shoulders with warlords, behind the scenes of IDEX.
Coincidence can be a beautiful thing, especially in the UAE. In 2011, just as Dubai authorities were locking up a newly-engaged holidaying couple for having pre-marital sex, the city welcomed John and Toni Terry, the former apologising for a spot of extra-marital sex via the classic footballer route: a long weekend in a five-star beach resort.
This year, the irony levels were ramped up from ‘mildly amusing’ to ‘rather disturbing’. In late February, just as a growing selection of Arabic governments were responding to local unrest with a diplomatic display of guns and tanks, Abu Dhabi opened the doors to IDEX, a week-long exhibition of guns and tanks and the biggest arms fair in the Middle East.
Across 124,000 square metres of event space, over 1,000 companies from 53 countries were there for a share of regional defence procurement budgets. Each offering a range of ‘regime support solutions’ impressive enough to have your average autocrat rethinking their Christmas list.
Armoured personnel carriers battled with giant cannons for attention, with more subtle approaches to ‘deterrence’ – rubber bullets, tear gas grenades and stun grenades – proudly displayed behind glass cabinets. The fact that they were being put to good use just an hour’s flight away not giving any of the 60,000-plus attendants any cause for concern.
Naturally, the UK was there in force, despite calls from home for the despots’ favourite to withdraw from the event amid revelations that the government had issued 20 licences for ‘riot control weapons’ between July and September last year for sales to Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE. BAE Systems’ stand included a giant armoured personnel carrier recently flogged to the Dubai police force (no doubt to deal with unruly footballers), while defence minister Gerald Howarth did his best hobnobbing with regional military chiefs, telling the local news agency that the government had “ambitious plans” to expand existing co-operation with Gulf states.
The Russian delegation had clearly done a little more research into local tastes. Rather than greying politicians in drab suits, their pavilion bustled with a team of twenty-something girls in flimsy blouses and short skirts handing out brochures detailing the capabilities of their anti-aircraft guns. At the stand next door, a smiling exhibitor was letting visitors get to grips with a bazooka while over the aisle a group of local teenagers marvelled at an enormous sniper rifle.
But it wasn’t all Western countries trying to claim some of the $68 billion estimated to be spent on defence by the six Gulf states in 2011. For generals with a bit of regional pride, there was a heavy arsenal of locally produced firepower on offer.
The UAE, striving to become a regional defence hub, unveiled almost an entire armies-worth of weaponry, from a meagre pistol right up to a missile-toting 70-metre ‘mini-warship’.
One of six being deployed to patrol its coastline, the warship – or multi-purpose missile corvette to those in the know – makes up just a fraction of the nation’s recent military spending. Large enough for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute to put it third place in the world’s biggest arms importers, behind just China and India, between 2004 and 2008. Not bad for a country somewhat smaller than Iceland.
Included in these statistics are the 80 F-16 fighter jets bought from Lockheed Martin, several of which made a flypast during the chest-beating show of strength that was the exhibition’s opening ceremony. Boasting the almost unthinkable accolade of being more advanced than those in the US Air Force, the F-16s were enough for General Petraeus to once comment that “the Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force”.
Such an event is unlikely to occur, but if it does the world’s arms dealers might prefer it to happen before the UAE opens the next IDEX in 2013. After all, they’ll no doubt be needing some more missiles.