Idex 2021: How the region's biggest-spending defence event was made possible

Daily PCR tests for delegates and exhibits spread over 12 halls played a crucial part

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Soldiers in pristine uniforms studied the latest Russian rifles, arms agents pitched for sales, while business deals were struck over coffee in a quiet corner of the exhibition halls.

Remote working, it was said, transformed how the world conducts business since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out last year.

But Idex 2021 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) has proved that Zoom is no match for face to face.

The mammoth defence exhibition is the largest in the region and showcases the latest in military hardware. The UAE Armed Forces awarded Dh5.03 billion ($1.37bn) in contracts on the first day alone. But it is also the first in-person event to be held in the capital since the pandemic broke out last March.

We feel really safe and that's mandatory for doing business

Saeed Al Mansoori, director of Idex, has been working 14-hour days, seven days a week, to ensure the exhibition is a socially distanced success.

"It put pressure on us but we were determined to deliver," he told The National, regarding the challenges of safely staging an exhibition amid the coronavirus crisis.

“We wanted to deliver something the whole world could learn from. We want people to enjoy the show and go home safe and healthy. For me it would be painful to see anyone get hurt or sick. As of now, we are keeping everyone healthy.”

Strict measures were in place across 35,000 square metres of exhibition space running through the 12 exhibition halls. International attendees did not have to follow the mandatory 10-day quarantine in place in Abu Dhabi but all those attending had to take several PCR tests, including one every 48 hours to access the event.

Daily tests for attendees are available in 19 hotels in the Adnec area.

Volunteers walked through the halls enforcing distancing, hundreds of stickers dictated how people entered and exited while sanitiser and masks were strictly enforced. Anyone who left a mask drop for even a few seconds were swiftly warned by staff.

“Six months ago, things were unpredictable and changing. The facilities the government has built since March made us confident we could do it,” said Mr Al Mansoori, referring to the UAE-wide PCR testing facilities and vaccine deployment.

After the dignitaries made their tour of the halls on Sunday, the exhibitors and attendees got down to business.

Unmanned and autonomous weapons from boats to surveillance systems dominated the display. Waging military warfare in the 21st century seems to increasingly mirror a simple games console that wouldn’t look out of place in your own home.

“It’s my fifth Idex and I can see how companies keep on innovating especially in homeland security and defence,” said Charles-Hubert Dufour, of French anti-drone maker Cerbair.

Mr Dufour's company was showcasing the Chimera, a portable drone hunter that can bring down a small unmanned object. “We feel really safe and that’s mandatory for doing business.”

But these advanced weapons sat alongside more typical pieces of military kit such as the AK-19 assault rifle from legendary Russian arms company Kalashnikov.

The AK-19 is making its global debut at Idex and people crowded around the stand to get a glimpse of the gun that looks uncannily similar to the original AK-47 first produced in the 1940s.

The Russian exhibits were among the most popular, along with Emirati defence group Edge. The 25-company strong Edge launched a series of new products on Sunday alone including new unmanned aerial vehicles.

"It was fantastic to be back doing business," said Alan Peaford, editor of Arabian Aerospace, looking at the Edge stand.

“So much depends on face to face meetings,” he said.

“There seems to be a total commitment throughout Abu Dhabi to make this happen and to keep us safe. A lot of international visitors that I have spoken to have commented on the pleasant surprise of how well we have been able to operate despite the restrictions.”

By 5pm the halls had grown quiet. Many had gone to take the free PCR tests, while others mused on the hard deals won and lost on the first day of an event that seemed to lift the global Covid-19 gloom.

“All the feedback I received today has been good,” said Mr Al Mansoori.

“We had 5,000 plus workers to make sure this show is safe, perfect and people are healthy. It has been perfect.”