June 8, 2011
By Hannah Gurman
The International Defense Exhibition, otherwise known as IDEX, has been held bi-annually in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 1993. It is the largest defense expo in the Middle East and North Africa and one of the biggest in the world. But far from being a one-off, it highlights the UAE’s growing stature as a global arms buyer.
This year’s IDEX took place in the glistening Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Its high ceilings and massive rooms displayed a diverse array of high-tech weaponry against the backdrop of heavily illuminated signboards like the ones you see in the showrooms of luxury car dealerships. All the big Western defense corporations were there — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dyncorp, Northrup Grumman, European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. — as well as Chinese companies, including China North. There were also a host of local companies including Arabian Aerospace, Abu Dhabi Ship Building Company, and the state-owned Mubadala. Like all of these events, it was a heavily male enterprise. The exhibitors wore suits. The visitors wore either the military uniform of the UAE or traditional Arab dress.
Outside, the expo began with a parade and air show, and representatives from BAE Systems gave passersby a tour of the latest features of their all-terrain tank. Just inside the entry hall, visitors could check out a parked yellow Hummer on their way to the exhibits. At the U.S. pavilion, a representative from Boeing demonstrated the features of its integrated defense simulator, and General Dynamics showed off its latest MK- 47 machine gun. At the Lockheed Martin exhibit, you could get within inches of anti-aircraft missiles propped on plastic risers like pieces of modernist art — so shiny you could see your reflection in them.
This lavish exhibition occurred a full three months before The New York Times broke the story that former Blackwater/Xe founder Erik Prince had struck a secret deal worth $529 million with [Gates Foundation partner/sponsor] Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to form a mercenary army for the UAE. According to reports cited in the story, the force will be used to protect oil pipelines and skyscrapers against terrorist attacks and suppress internal uprisings of the large population of migrant workers living in the country — as well as potentially engaging Iran, long the UAE’s biggest regional foe. [Tony Blair spoke in Dubai against Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an attempt to protect Britain's oil interests in what was once the Persian oil fields.]
Coverage so far has centered on Prince and his notorious company. But the full story of the UAE’s employment of foreign companies to build up its military and defense goes well beyond Blackwater/Xe and includes a virtual who’s who of Western defense companies.
A Brief History of the UAE military
The UAE we know today is a relatively new entity. For most of the last two centuries Britain provided security in the region in exchange for lucrative trading deals and control of the sheikhs’ relations with other foreign powers. Security was handed over to the UAE in 1971, when the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and four other emirates agreed to form a federal union.
|United Arab Emirates|
In recent years the UAE has made massive military and defense investments in an effort to rebuff Iran, become a dominant military player in the region, and diversify its oil-dependent economy. Recruiting ever more foreign soldiers — like the Colombian paramilitaries [reputedly funded by Chiquita, formerly United Fruit Company] who will be part of Prince’s mercenary outfit — is a key part of this endeavor. Purchasing ever larger amounts of the best high-tech weaponry is perhaps an even more important part. In 2009, the UAE was the biggest foreign purchaser of U.S. arms. In October 2010, it invited 50 U.S.-based defense companies to visit and see the opportunities for growth first-hand.
Who’s Profiting from the UAE Arms Proliferation?
The UAE’s long-term plan is to build its own defense industry into a major international player. In accordance with this plan, 75 percent of the contracts at IDEX went to local firms, including Emirate Systems [UAE's Emiraje Systems], which got a $550 million deal to coordinate military intelligence and communicate military operations down the chain of command. Another major deal involved the Abu Dhabi-based Bayanat Company [located in the heart of Abu Dhabi], which obtained a contract to provide aerial surveillance within the UAE.
As with most aspects of the UAE economy, Western businesses have an integral and profitable role to play in this endeavor. They work as “partners” with the local companies. Typically, this means they provide the expertise, training, and equipment, while the UAE government provides the money. The state-owned Mubadala Development Company [a participant in the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 Team], which has seen growing profits in recent years, does business with all the biggest Western contractors....
Hannah Gurman, columnist at Foreign Policy in Focus, is an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She writes on the politics, economics, and culture of U.S. diplomacy and military conflict. Her forthcoming book, The Dissent Papers: The Voice of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, will be published by the University of Columbia Press in fall 2011.
Continue reading this article at FPIF.