The five-day exhibition, being held for the second time after the inaugural event in 2022, opened on Monday with everything from stealth cruise missiles to armoured cars and models of weapon systems, missile launchers and fighter bombers packed into an 800,000-square metre venue north of the capital.
The kingdom's General Authority for Military Industries (Gami) has so far signed 11 co-operation agreements with leading international firms with a focus on the “localisation” of Saudi defence production, according to the authority's governor, Ahmad Al Ohali.
A large part of Saudi Arabia's efforts to develop a home-grown defence industry has been the nurturing of local talent.
“If you look at all these defence systems, including in space, it starts with academics, universities and specialised technology institutes,” said retired Brigadier General Abdullah Alajmi, the director of business development at Lockheed Martin Space in Saudi Arabia. “So for the defence sector, we have several educational institutes and universities that are doing a lot of great work on technology development.
“The kingdom established the General Authority for Defence Development; they are responsible for all the research and development for military sector programmes for the kingdom,” Brig Gen Alajmi told a panel on the space domain of warfare.
“The kingdom is looking seriously at technology transfer and training now and all the space programmes are looking for localisation as a major requirement.”
The Saudi Arabian Military Industries (Sami), created in 2017, has set a target of 50 per cent of defence spending going to domestic producers by 2030, as part of the kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy.
Boeing, the US aerospace giant, already has co-operation agreements with Sami and Gami, having supplied around 400 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, notably the F-15 Eagle, the backbone of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Agreements have also been announced during the show with Leonardo of Italy, one of the world’s largest defence companies that is not American, Chinese or British.
Aside from producing fixed-wing aircraft including the Alenia C-27J Spartan cargo plane and the M-346 trainer fighter jet, Leonardo has also worked on the F-35 stealth fighter and is developing tilt-rotor aircraft that can take off vertically like helicopters.
More spending, more players
Saudi Arabia has set aside 269 billion riyals ($72 billion) for military expenditure this year, up from 259 billion riyals last year.
The kingdom accounts for around 20 per cent of US defence companies' overseas sales. The five biggest US companies in the sector – Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Northrup Gruman – have a combined market capitalisation of about half a trillion dollars.
Unsurprisingly, the US has a significant presence at the World Defence Show, although one of the current symbols of its military capability – the Himars missile launcher – was parked away from the ranks of armoured vehicles on display.
Capable of propelling missiles up 300 kilometres with an accuracy of within five metres, Himars has performed with lethal effect in Ukraine, which has received around 20 to 30 of the roughly 400 systems in the US inventory to support its fight against Russia's invasion.
China, with two of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, Aviation Industry Corporation of China and China North Industries, also has a notable presence at the exhibition as regional powers seek to diversify their sources of military hardware in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.
Defence spending has surged globally, rising over $2 trillion for the first time in 2022 and remaining around that level in 2023, driven by the conflict in Ukraine, which has seen Europe begin an ambitious rearmament programme and Russian defence spending top $85 billion.
Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region are also high, with China, Taiwan and India breaking defence spending records last year, while the US defence budget this year is a record $886 billion.
The Riyadh show highlighted that a number of emerging defence powerhouses are seeking to tap this market, dominated so far by a handful of countries such as China, Russia, the US and UK.
South Korea, which has recently exported its formidable K2 Black Panther tanks and K9 self-propelled howitzers to Poland – up to 1,000 of the armoured vehicles – had a strong presence at the exhibition.
The UAE’s Edge, formed in 2019 to develop high-tech “sovereign capabilities for global export”, is marketing its eye-catching HT-100 and HT-750 unmanned helicopters.
Turkey’s Baykar drone company is showing its new Bayraktar TB3 aircraft carrier-compatible drone, while Ankara may export a version of its TCG Anadolu helicopter carrier, built by Sedef Shipping, that carries a complement of UAVs