Idex 2021: What to expect at the Middle East's biggest defence expo

Cyber security, electronic warfare and autonomous and ground-based air defence systems remain of major interest to the region’s militaries, analysts say

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Gulf countries are expected to invest in advanced defence technology, local military production and knowledge-transfer partnerships during the Middle East’s largest defence expo in Abu Dhabi this week.

Missile defence systems, drones, counter-unmanned aerial vehicles, cyber security tools and artificial intelligence technology, which have played an important role in modern warfare, will be in demand at the International Defence Exhibition, analysts said.

“It is likely that we will see greater emphasis on naval platforms, unmanned systems and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as continued support, training, maintenance and sustainment contracts,” said Charles Forrester, lead analyst at defence intelligence specialist Janes.

Defence spending by Gulf countries grew by 5.4 per cent to $100 billion last year, up from $94.9bn in 2019, according to the latest report by Janes.

The biennial defence expo, which begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday, will gather top industry players eager to showcase their latest technology.

Idex is also the first major defence event since the Covid-19 outbreak, as companies make the most of face-to-face meetings to revive business.

Mr Forrester said cyber security, autonomous systems, electronic warfare and ground-based air defence systems would continue to be of interest to militaries in the region.

He said the requirements for such technology came from both the threat environment in the region and the changing face of modern military operations.

“The rise in the use of unmanned systems by state and non-state actors means that defending facilities, structures and troops from attack and hostile reconnaissance has increased," said Mr Forrester.

"These threats can be dealt with by electronic warfare technology, as well as kinetic means.”

The Iranian threat

Current geopolitical challenges, which include threats from Iran and its proxies, and a need to protect critical infrastructure such as oil assets will spur the need for such military equipment.

“The continued antagonism by Iranian forces in the region will also drive the need for surveillance sensor systems, and analysing the outputs by these systems, to ensure broader aims of stability," said Mr Forrester.

"Utilising unmanned technology will help to deliver this force multiplier and encourage security.”

With Covid-19 and subdued oil prices tightening budgets, governments have been urged to balance healthcare and defence spending amid the pandemic.

Defence spending in Gulf countries is expected to fall by 9.4 per cent this year, before dropping to $89.4bn in 2022, according to Janes, which expects spending to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

“Governments in the region are planning for only modest revenue increases in 2021, coupled with social and health expenditures and aggressive vaccination campaigns, which clearly requires careful reassessment of defence and security spending,” said Aleksandar Jovovic, principal at Washington consultancy Avascent.

This could translate into delays in acquisitions, slower spending in certain segments and the rationalisation of operations or maintenance spending, he said.

However, the organisers of the event said the value of deals that the UAE is expected to sign during Idex and the Naval Defence and Maritime Security Exhibition, or Navdex, this year is expected to be similar to 2019 levels.

The UAE Armed Forces awarded contracts worth Dh20.5 billion ($5.58bn) to local and international companies during the previous event, organisers said.

AI, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and diversification

Gulf countries, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, seek to leverage advanced technology in the defence sector.

Idex will provide a platform for regional buyers to explore opportunities in AI and Fourth Industrial Revolution technology, cyber security and defence-based research and development.

“Through investment, strategic partnerships and building a strong local capability, the GCC countries have the potential to lure significant investment into key emerging technology areas such as cyber security, drone technology and advanced avionics,” said Ammar Hindash, partner and defence lead at PwC Middle East.

Abu Dhabi's Edge – a defence conglomerate specialised in the development of advanced technology for weapons systems, cyber protection and electronic warfare – previously said it would reveal several new UAVs in early 2021.

Edge said in a tweet that it plans to launch more than 20 products at Idex and exhibit more than 50 core capabilities across its various business clusters.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are developing their military production capabilities to localise procurement and reduce their reliance on foreign suppliers.

The move is intended to diversify economies away from oil, nurture local manufacturing and create more jobs. It will also boost sectors such as maintenance and repair operations where local capabilities exist.

The transfer of technology and knowledge from international partners to local companies will increasingly become part of offset and procurement regulations and be reflected in deals at Idex, said analysts.

“Covid-19 has highlighted the impact that emerging threats can have on global supply chain systems and thus the need to further emphasise and accelerate localisation efforts,” said Mr Hindash.

Covid-19 has highlighted the impact that emerging threats can have on global supply chain systems and thus the need to further emphasise and accelerate localisation efforts

Gulf countries have long been significant buyers of US weapons and are expected to continue sourcing their military requirements from other countries, said analysts.

More than 900 exhibitors from 59 countries are expected to participate in this year's event, which will have 35 national pavilions.

More than 70,000 local and international visitors are expected, in addition to 110 international delegations.

North Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Portugal will be participating for the first time.

About 84 per cent of exhibiting companies will be from abroad while 16 per cent will be UAE-based.

“Idex will be the first defence trade show to take place since the pandemic started a year ago, so all eyes will be at the show that could encourage other trade show organisers to resume activities,” said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.