Idex 2023: Top five key takeaways from Abu Dhabi's packed defence industry expo

UAE conglomerate Edge dominates the show with multibillion dollar deals as the country's local manufacturing push comes to fruition

A UAE-made armoured vehicle on display at Idex. Victor Besa / The National
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Abu Dhabi hosted an arms fair this week where local and international companies showcased their latest cutting-edge weapons — from tanks to air defence systems and ammunition.

The UAE, the Middle East’s main business and export centre, is seeking to shore up its own defence industry as part of a wider plan to localise military spending and to boost domestic manufacturing in priority sectors.

The National takes a closer look at the top five key themes and trends that emerged during the packed five-day International Defence Exhibition and Conference that ended on February 24.

1. Local companies dominate UAE's defence deals

State-owned defence conglomerate Edge dominated the exhibition with a series of multibillion dollar contracts awarded by Tawazun Council, the UAE's defence procurement arm, despite a solid presence of international companies that included heavyweights from the US and Europe.

The deals signal a shift from complete reliance on foreign companies to confidence in locally manufactured defence products, industry analysts say. “Made in the UAE” military equipment is becoming available after years of development and testing as the country's local manufacturing push comes to fruition.

“The UAE military does not spend money on inferior stuff; they're known to be very demanding in terms of weapons and equipment … so if Tawazun Council is placing these huge contracts with Edge, that really seems to demonstrate a lot of confidence in what Edge has been doing over the years,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defence specialist at Janes.

Local arms companies are also increasingly seeking to boost their exports, attracting new customers in international markets. Edge's Abu Dhabi Ship Building announced a deal worth €1 billion ($1.06 billion) to supply three 71-metre corvettes and other ships to the Angolan navy on the first day of Idex.

It also aims to sign deals worth “several billion dirhams” in the next two years with customers in the Emirates, Africa and Asia, ADSB chief executive David Massey told The National.

Edge's Caracal, a small arms manufacturer, signed a partnership licensing agreement with India-based Icomm to develop a portfolio of locally manufactured small arms for the Indian market, said Edge. The partnership marks the first transfer of technology in small arms from the UAE to India.

2. Advanced tech is reshaping the battlefield

Advanced technology, particularly Big Data, is increasingly important in defence applications and that was a clear emphasis at the show.

Next-generation technology such as artificial intelligence and autonomy has “fostered an increasing exchange of data” between equipment, weapons platforms and armies. This flow of data paves the way for digital services to play an increasingly important role, said global consultancy Oliver Wyman.

“These digital services will contribute towards improving aftermarket activities, such as performing maintenance and overhaul on defence systems, and … will also reshape the future competitive landscape of the global defence industry,” it said.

Digital services will affect all aspects of the aftermarket services in the defence industry and could represent revenue of up to $20 billion globally by 2030, Oliver Wyman said.

“Defence is definitely moving to a Big Data world where all the sensors are gathering information all the time and channelling it back to centralised command control systems, where that data needs to be processed in a meaningful way and then orders sent back out so that units in the field can take the appropriate action,” said Mr Binnie from Janes.

3. Arms makers bolster supply chains with local partnerships

International arms companies are looking to increase procurement from UAE companies and undertake defence production in the country, as part of wider attempts to bolster their supply chains.

Aerospace and defence companies are diversifying their procurement after coronavirus-induced supply chain problems caused delays and disruptions.

French defence and technology group Thales plans to increase local procurement, boost engineering activities and nearly double the workforce at its UAE subsidiary, in line with the country's local manufacturing push, it said at Idex.

Similarly, Boeing is looking at opportunities in “working with our international partners to make sure we are utilising that as an additive to our supply chain, so we take that as a priority”, Vince Logsdon, vice president of international business development for Boeing Defence, said at Idex.

The UAE's Tawazun Council and the US company signed an agreement during Idex to open a complex for unmanned systems at the Tawazun Industrial Park to support the Armed Forces. The complex will focus on overhauling and repairing aircraft engines and offering training to operators in the region.

4. Ukraine makes its mark at defence expo

Ukraine made its mark at Idex this week with a display of weapons used in the war, as Russia's invasion of the country enters into its second year.

Ukrainian companies showcased products from drones to missile systems to tactical clothing.

The Ukraine defence industry is dealing “very well” with the conflict and aims to resume exports to its biggest markets in the Gulf, North Africa and central Africa once the war ends, Oleg Skliar, project manager of state owned defence company Luch, told The National.

A lot of people — Middle East and Gulf representatives — came to us. Everyone was surprised to see us here. It is a hard time for Ukraine,” Mr Skliar said.

“We are not exporting at this time and we are focusing on our local customers by supporting [our] armed forces.”

Meanwhile, on the opposite end and at a pavilion over a motorway by the water, Russia showed up with a large display of weapons it is using in the war.

The country showcased air-to-surface missiles, naval patrol vessels, small arms, high-precision weapons.

International defence companies such as Boeing and Thales have registered an uplift in sales driven by European demand for military equipment as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, executives said.

5. New products from robot 'dogs' to 'Jeniah'

From robot dogs scurrying around the exhibition floor to Edge's imposing unmanned combat aerial vehicle Jeniah, there was no shortage of quirky or new products on display at Idex.

Fitted with a smart camera and video transmission system, the tactical robot dog manufactured by China Jing An Import and Export Corporation (CJAIE) is catching the attention of visitors at Idex.

The robot, which costs between $1,000 and $10,000, can be used for entertainment purposes, as well as for security and inspections, exploration and rescue missions.

The robot is on display at the China pavilion that housed a large turnout of Chinese defence companies.

Within Edge's new portfolio of 11 products on display at Idex is Jeniah, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle that has an extended range and is capable of operating at high speeds, providing a high-tech and autonomous means of carrying out military operations.

Displayed alongside Jeniah is its Ground Control Station, which is designed to monitor and command the system.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 7:06 AM