For those thinking of fighting a war in the immediate future, or for those already involved in the continuing conflicts plaguing Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine and in several African countries, there was no better place to be in the last week of February than at the Abu Dhabi International Defence Exhibition (IDEX).
The more conflicts prevailing in the world, greater the sales at IDEX; over 159 official delegations and 100,000 visitors milled around the sprawling Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre at this year’s exhibition, viewing and lapping up the latest weaponry and protection gear supplied by some 1,200 companies representing 56 countries.
The 12th iteration of the annual IDEX show saw business booming as Americans, Russians, French, British and other death merchants from around the globe gathered in rare camaraderie to sell their lethal ware to friend and foe alike. It is true that at IDEX there are no friends and enemies; just sellers and buyers eager to transact a deadly deal.
The irony of selling killing ware at a ‘defense’ exhibition was somehow lost on the crowds eager to grab the most potent weapons of destruction before their enemies got their hands on them.
“IDEX is remarkable in that it’s able to gather all these ‘enemies’ in one place,” said Gen. Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein, the Sudanese defense minister. The General should know; he is nominally the head of his country’s Military Industry Corporation that sells arms that fuel many of the ongoing conflicts in the area. Moreover, the General has an International Criminal Court arrest warrant pending against him since 2012, for his alleged role in orchestrating war crimes in Darfur.
Size of the sales and display kiosks were themselves indicative of each seller’s market share: the bigger the manufacturer the larger their stall. Top defense firms’ pavilions had 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.
Cowering under the 10-foot-high tanks and the towering surface-to-air missiles on display, one easily becomes transfixed by the sheer ingenuity that has gone into making each weapon more lethal and more destructive than its competitor.
With conflicts aplenty in the region, a resurgent Russia flexing its muscle and piling pressure on NATO countries, including those under severe economic stagnation, to cough up more for their joint defense, it was no wonder that the 12th iteration of IDEX was such a resounding success.
The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) armed forces signed contracts worth US$5 billion at this year’s exhibition. Among other governments shopping around were those from the Kingdom of Jordan and Ukraine. One estimate puts the total defense spending growth in the Middle-East in 2014 at 12.1 percent or roughly around US$120 billion.
The American civilian market for arms alone was enough to lift the spirits of one Pakistani gun manufacturer at IDEX. The Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) sells semiautomatic rifles to security forces in Bahrain and is attempting to ply its wares in Baghdad, but the firm considers the United States a potentially more lucrative market than any other.
Voicing his happiness at the recent approval that POF received from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for a handful of personal weapons, the factory’s Export General Manager Arif Saeed Qazi said, “There’s always demand there for these things.”
At the Russian pavilion for KBP Instrument Design Bureau, one of the leading design companies for the Russian defense industry, Yury Savenkov, the firm’s deputy director, was expounding on the destructive capabilities of his company’s anti-aircraft missiles and helicopter gunships.
With a wry smile he clarified, “We propose our weapons only as a defensive means…” He then went on to add, “In the UAE, we work together with the United States, because we both provide military products for the defense of this country.” The UAE’s air fleet is made up of American-made planes, he explained, but the weapons systems capable of shooting down an aircraft from the ground are Russian.
So what happens when weapons intended for one party ends up in the hands of their adversaries? Qazi from the POF said, “We are trying to sell to Iraq and we can supply them anything they want.
However, we are careful that our guns reach only the buyer.” He added the caveat, “We want to make sure they should not fall into the wrong hands.” He did not elucidate on how his firm intended to ensure this.
But then, “falling into the wrong hands” is something that even the most prolific and sophisticated seller — the US military — has not been able to prevent. When the Islamic State seized swaths of northern Iraq over the summer of 2014, it captured the Iraqi Army’s US-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.
Meanwhile at the Sudanese pavilion for its state-owned Military Industry Corporation, which was founded in 1993 with expertise from China and Iran, Gen. Muhammad Hussein was impervious to the fact that the firm’s ware has been recorded as popping up in the hands of both parties in conflicts from South Sudan to Ivory Coast to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Libya to Syria. Who is complaining? All the belligerents involved were after all using the weapons only for defense purpose.