With conflicts raging from Ukraine to Syria to Yemen, there's something for everyone -- and every conflict -- at the world's most important gun show.
- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — For those thinking of fighting a war in the near future, there was no better place to be last week than Abu Dhabi’s annual International Defence Exhibition (IDEX). In the market for a new high-resolution surveillance satellite or some high-caliber ammunition? Check. Want to cradle a brand-new Kalashnikov or test out the drone-control station for the windowless Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle parked nearby? Check. Or want to just see how the latest flak jackets, many of which are now made by the Chinese, fit? Check.
Twelve years into its existence, IDEX has become the world’s most indispensable arms expo. By the time the five-day event closed on Feb. 26, thousands of engineers, salesmen, CEOs, and PR reps had converged on the event, where this year 1,200 companies displayed their wares from 56 countries. Their clients came too. Some 159 delegations and 100,000 visitors toured the tank-lined hallways of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) armed forces alone signed contracts worth $5 billion. Other governments shopping around included Jordan and Ukraine, among many others.
“It’s the one show that actual decision-makers bother to go to,” said South Africa’s Paramount Group founder and CEO, Ivor Ichikowitz. During the show, Paramount sealed a deal to produce 50 of its Mbombe infantry combat vehicles for the Jordanian armed forces. “Most shows, the host country tends to hog the decision-makers.… Here, they encourage their guests to get out there and do some work.”
These days, business is booming. The conflicts tearing apart the region — from Iraq to Syria, from Yemen to Ukraine — have helped drive up military budgets across the globe. By Paramount Group’s estimates, defense spending grew 12.1 percent in the Middle East last year, to $120.6 billion. Faced with a resurgent Russia, NATO countries are also under pressure to reach the alliance’s mandated 2-percent-of-GDP target for military spending, even in places such as Bulgaria and Italy, where economies are stagnant. The United States is also joining the spending spree: President Barack Obama requested a 7 percent boost to the defense budget this year.
Even absent the Defense Department’s open coffers, the American civilian market was enough to lift the spirits of one Pakistani gun manufacturer at IDEX. The Pakistan Ordnance Factories sells semiautomatic rifles to security forces in Bahrain and is trying to ply its wares in Baghdad, but it’s the United States that could potentially be an even more lucrative market. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently approved a handful of the personal weapons made by the firm, export general manager Arif Saeed Qazi told me. “There’s always demand there for these things,” he said proudly.
Indeed, at IDEX there are no friends and foes, just businessmen. “It is defense — fighting — but still we are displaying all our products together in one place, Americans, Chinese, Russians,” Sudan’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein, told me when I ran into him at the expo. “[IDEX] was able to collect all these people here — all these enemies — in one place.”
Hussein may well have been speaking from personal experience: The International Criminal Court has had a warrant pending for his arrest since 2012, when the court’s prosecutor said there was reason to believe he was responsible for war crimes in Darfur.
The first task upon arrival at IDEX is to subdue the sensory overload. I wandered the halls of the exhibition cowering under the 10-foot-high tanks and the towering surface-to-air missiles. The sample soundtrack of an advanced warning system — “All personnel must leave the area!” — kept interrupting the otherwise gentle hum of deal-making. Each kiosk’s size was itself descriptive of the firm’s market share: the bigger the better. Top defense firms’ pavilions have several floors, even glass-walled meeting rooms and catering services. The newbie booths looked more like cellphone-service sign-up kiosks in a shopping mall.
I found myself transfixed by a line of armored personnel carriers in front of the booth of the Belarusian-based firm SRPC. A kind Belarusian salesman explained that his firm makes the attachments for this beast: an anti-tank missile system. “Every country with armed conflicts needs one of these,” he told me confidently, handing over a brochure. For convenience, his firm offers a heavy and a light version (200 pounds versus 44 pounds) — “it just depends what you need.”
I swung around to a Russian pavilion for KBP, which was showcasing anti-aircraft missiles and a few helicopters. Yury Savenkov, the firm’s deputy director, couldn’t help smiling when he learned I was American. “We propose our weapons as a defensive means,” he told me through an interpreter, perhaps anticipating Cold War animosity. “Here, we can say that in [the UAE], we work together with the United States, because we both provide military products for the defense of this country,” he continued with a giggle. The UAE’s air fleet is made up of American-made planes, he explained, but weapons systems capable of shooting down an aircraft from the ground are Russian.
No one needed to say it by name: The conflicts in Ukraine and against jihadis across the Middle East were implicit in the pitches of nearly every seller. Have a border with Yemen? We’ve got thermal detection systems to catch smugglers. Afraid of Islamic State infiltration? Perhaps your surveillance drones need an upgrade. Just in case, better buy both NATO- and Russian-compatible systems.
Geopolitical tensions made it into the punch lines of even the most unlikely vendors. A small night-vision goggle kiosk outside the main hall appeared lonely and longing for attention. The scientist Alexei P. Shkadarevich, a Belarus State Prize winner and director of the LEMT Scientific and Technical Centre, part of BelOMO Holding, said that the turbulent Mideast region has been good to his company: The firm holds contracts to supply optical devices for grenade launchers in Jordan and night-vision equipment for Saudi Arabia’s and Iraq’s ministries of Defense and Interior. The Iraqi delegation paid his firm a visit during IDEX, he explained: “We have started delivering the product to them already.”
I wondered whether Iraq — faced with putting down the Islamic State — was buying any more-lethal wares, so I sought out the busiest booth I could find for personal firearms. It belonged to the Pakistan Ordnance Factories — the firm active in Bahrain that is eyeing an incursion into the U.S. market.
“We are trying to sell to Iraq,” Qazi said, elaborating that his firm had already met with the Iraqi government four or five months earlier. “We can supply them anything they want,” he continued, with the caveat that the firm is careful to make sure the firm’s guns do reach only the buyer. “They should not go to the wrong person,” he said.
Of course, “falling into the wrong hands” is something even the most sophisticated customer — the U.S. military — has been unable to prevent. When the Islamic State seized swaths of northern Iraq over the summer of 2014, it captured the Iraqi Army’s U.S.-gifted weapons and vehicles en masse. Late last year, Conflict Armament Research, a consultancy, undertook a survey of ammunition used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and found that some 20 percent had been made in America.
By chance, the Pakistani pavilion sits adjacent to that of Sudan, where the country’s defense minister was touring the state-owned Military Industry Corporation. Founded in 1993, the firm draws on Chinese and Iranian expertise, according to Small Arms Survey, a research group that has documented how the firm’s wares are popping up in conflicts from South Sudan to Ivory Coast to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Libya to Syria.
Sudan’s General Hussein swung his cane back and forth as he spoke and pointed to specific products. Here were all the firm’s best artillery and handguns and one particularly notable new air-to-surface rocket launcher, the ASML07, newly developed by the country’s scientists. Weapons leave the launcher at an initial speed of 28.66 meters per second. “This is the latest development from our engineers,” he boasted.
Before I could ask much more, the minister was gone, whisked away into meetings or perhaps on a tour of the exhibition. There were clients to be found, after all.
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