UAE gun maker firing on all cylinders

Rifles have strong roots in Bedouin tradition, but the country has begun to make a name for itself in the small arms industry with Caracal.

10 AUGUST 2010 - Abu Dhabi - Ali humaid Al Nuaimi, shooter practicing his shooting skilss with a pistol at Caracal shoot club at Armed Forces Officers club in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National     For a Business weekend package by Gregor Stuart Hunter

Trying to conduct a conversation through a pair of ear defenders is difficult enough. However, it's downright impossible when the woman next to you - wearing an abaya - is blasting round after round at a target at the opposite end of a firing range.

"What?" I shout at the range officer who is explaining the correct firing position of the Caracal pistol I hold in my palm. Hoping I've understood all the instructions, I take aim at the bullseye, and squeeze the trigger ever so gently - until I'm met with a resounding blam, a kick, and a spent shell pinging away in an arc of smoke. Caracal has sent shots ringing round the world in the past few years, as the UAE sets its sights on the international arms market.

The US Congressional Research Service estimates that total arms transfers worldwide, including heavier weapons such as bombs and artillery, were worth US$55.2bn (Dh202.74bn) in 2008. Jim Cameron, a senior analyst at the security consultancy Stirling Assynt, puts the UAE's motivation in entering the arms trade succinctly, calling it "the international prestige of having your own guns". Caracal pistols have recently entered the US market, where Caracal hopes to tap Americans' sporting enthusiasm for hunting and shooting.

The lightweight 9mm pistols are built in Tawazun Industrial Park, Abu Dhabi, and use fewer parts than many other pistols, offering a simpler and more durable design. The company's 150-strong workforce is also 80 per cent Emirati. Caracal obtained 10 new patents during the weapon's design process and achieved accreditation from NATO, the German police and the Wehrmacht. It touts the gun's unique trigger system as key to its accuracy and safety on the firing range.

All Caracal models incorporate the latest design elements of gunmaking and, as a result, the company offers one of the most modern pistols on the market. That can be jarring for some enthusiasts who prefer the "tradition" of older models of handgun, says Guillaume Gerrier, the range manager at the Caracal Shooting Club in Abu Dhabi. But many enthusiasts have come round to the UAE-made weapons, he adds.

Mindful of this, Caracal recently acquired Merkel, a German company which has been building hand-engraved hunting rifles since 1898, granting access to distribution facilities in the EU and America. As part of efforts to develop the UAE's weapons industry, Tawazun Holdings partnered with Al Jaber Group and Rheinmetall Munitions systems in a deal worth Dh268 million to bring an ammunition factory to the Gulf.

Al Burkan Munitions Factory, which also opened in 2007, assembles numerous types of munitions, including aircraft bombs, artillery and naval rounds, and bullets for handguns and rifles. The UAE is a big net importer of arms, and was placed fourth-biggest arms buyer in the world in a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), which also included heavy weapons such as missiles and tanks.

The study, which was released in March, noted that arms imports to the UAE have declined for four consecutive years. One of the consequences of the UAE's move to develop arms manufacturing locally has been the creation of a licensed market for shooting among both locals and expatriates at clubs such as Caracal, the Jebel Ali International Shooting Club and Sharjah Shooting Club. Patrick Gordon, a gun enthusiast from the US, says: "I've been in the Middle East for 30 years, but it's been policy that expats couldn't have guns or have access to guns."

The arrival of the Caracal pistol changed all that, allowing shooting clubs for expatriates to flourish in the UAE. "All of a sudden, you've had access to all this pent-up demand," says Mr Gordon. For expats, access to handguns is much more complicated in the Middle East than in the US or Europe - with the exception of Britain, where handgun ownership is illegal. In theory, anyone can obtain a permit to carry a firearm in the UAE, provided they have a Letter of No Objection from their employer. In practice, the government is hesitant to allow foreign workers to carry weapons because of security concerns. In other Gulf countries, the situation varies. Firearms are banned in Kuwait, although in Bahrain and Qatar it is possible to obtain a licence to carry a firearm. Saudi Arabia legalised sales of handguns last year in an attempt to control arms in the kingdom, which many commentators saw as a move against illegal arms sales to Yemeni-based militants. Shooting forms an important part of Emirati culture and, despite gun controls, ownership of firearms is common. The Small Arms Survey of gun ownership worldwide estimated that about one million guns were held by civilians in the UAE in 2007, before Caracal arrived on the market - a rate of 22.1 guns per 100 people. "Officially it's forbidden," says Mr Gerrier, "but many people [shoot] illegally in the desert. It's part of the Bedouin traditions to have a rifle and to hunt for survival". However, he says competitions have also attracted nomads and villagers from across the Arabian peninsula. "Many guys come from the desert to shoot - they get out of their villages to shoot at night." Children are also encouraged to participate, under supervision, he says. "There's some transmission from fathers to sons … some go and train their sons in the desert. But now it's not hidden any more." Emirati women, too, have proved unexpectedly keen enthusiasts for Caracal pistols. "There are many ladies who come in and they're really proud of what they're doing. It's a way to show the men and the society that they're able to do the same," Mr Gerrier says.