With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and an increasingly aggressive Iran, Gulf Arab states are spending billions to improve their defenses and better protect their energy infrastructure. Nowhere has this been more evident than last month’s International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi.
The region’s largest defense exhibition attracted officials from militaries and governments around the globe looking to preview the latest weapon systems and defense technology on the market. With arms sales slumping in the United States and Europe, defense firms have been eager to secure deals abroad. This year, IDEX included around 1,200 defense companies from 55 countries displaying their newest products and services.
As with other defense exhibitions worldwide, the host country typically becomes the largest buyer. This year the UAE signed a record 33 contracts worth 18.33 billion dirhams ($4.99 billion) – up 30% from the previous IDEX in 2013. In an indication that the Emirates’ own defense industry is maturing, 21 of the contracts ($3.81 billion worth) the UAE signed were with UAE-based companies. These included locally-made kits for precision-guided bombs, armored vehicles, ships, assault rifles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The UAE’s largest contract included a $1 billion sale for two satellites and ground control stations from European defense giants Airbus and Thales. Other large purchases include $618 million for two additional C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft from Boeing. The Emirates also ordered nine more AW139 helicopters (six for search and rescue and three VIP transport) from the Anglo-Italian manufacturer AgustaWestland.
More UAE purchases may still be in the works. Reports suggest that British BAE Systems and French Dassault Aviation are still in discussions with the UAE over sales of their Typhoon and Rafale fighters, respectively. This contradicts previous reports that the European fighters had been eliminated from the competition to supply 60 fighters to the Emirati Air Force. Boeing’s F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet multirole fighters are reportedly also in contention for the coveted deal. All four aircraft are being used by Coalition air wings to conduct strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, which became the world’s largest arms importer in 2014, also submitted two letters of request to the US outlining their requirements for a major upgrade to their neglected Eastern Fleet sources revealed at IDEX. While this fleet includes three new French-built frigates, much of it is composed of smaller craft built 30 or more years ago. With Iran rapidly developing its maritime capabilities to disrupt the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the Saudis seek to counter this by requesting four 3,500-ton frigates with advanced anti-air and anti-ship missiles and cutting-edge radar; six 2,500-ton warships capable launching MH-60R helicopters; 20 to 24 fast patrol vessels; ten “maritime helicopters” (likely MH-60Rs); three maritime patrol aircraft; and 30 to 50 UAVs, according to Defense News. This equipment will need to be tailored to combat not only conventional threats such as well-armed warships and fighter aircraft, but also Iran’s unique asymmetric threats such as small boats swarms and anti-ship missiles. The deal is expected to total as much as $16 billion.
The Saudis, along with the Qataris, are also looking to acquire Lockheed Martin’s Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system, commonly known as THAAD. THAAD is an advanced missile defense system employed by the US and UAE designed to target short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles, but has some ability to thwart larger intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), too. This system will add another layer of protection to the Saudi’s existing Patriot missile system and Qatar’s future Patriot PAC-3 system, which Doha purchased last year during a massive spending spree. This acquisition is expected to cost around $6.5 billion for each buyer.
The Jordanians, who are increasingly engaged in the Coalition campaign against ISIS, also made waves at IDEX after signing a multi-million dollar deal with South Africa’s Paramount Group to produce 50 Mbombe armored vehicles. The 6×6 wheeled vehicles will provide added mobility to the Hashemite Kingdom’s armed forces as they struggle to keep ISIS from infiltrating their borders. Jordanian military officials reportedly also sought UAVs at IDEX for operations against ISIS. This follows reports in early February that the Obama Administration had rejected a request to market unarmed Predator drones to Jordan, suggesting that non-US manufacturers will now benefit.
As the Middle East security environment is unlikely to improve anytime soon, defense companies aiming to buck falling sales in the West are already looking forward to the next IDEX in 2017, where cash-flush Gulf countries will eagerly await them. But they wont need to wait that long to make more sales. Upcoming shows include Lebanon’s Security Middle East Show (SMES) in June, the Dubai Airshow in November, and Kuwait’s Gulf Defense and Aerospace exhibition in December.
Patrick Megahan is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs. He manages the website militaryedge.org.