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UAE unveils $1.36bn in arms deals at Abu Dhabi weapons show

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Major arms makers attended a convention in Abu Dhabi hoping to swing deals with militaries across the Middle East.

Major arms makers are attending a weapons show in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, hoping to seal deals with militaries across the Middle East.

At the opening, the UAE revealed that it had signed $1.36bn in local and foreign arms deals to supply its forces with everything from South African drones to Serbian artillery.

Although the figure surpasses the 2019 show’s opening announcement, defence experts anticipate a drop in military spending this year as the pandemic and slumping global oil prices squeeze budgets in the Gulf region.

The biennial trade fair, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, is Abu Dhabi’s first big in-person event since the outbreak of the coronavirus – a sign of its significance to the city that has maintained tight movement restrictions in recent months.

The 70,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors rely on the largest weapons expo in the Middle East to buy and sell the latest wares, from armoured vehicles to ballistic missiles.

Top Emirati officials, including Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, were on hand on Sunday, wandering between displays of rifles, rockets and bombs.

But with hand sanitiser as ubiquitous as sterile drone displays, the pandemic’s effects remained visible. Significant national pavilions were absent, including the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter.

Big American companies turned up but kept a low profile. Lockheed Martin representatives standing beside models of stealth F-35 fighters were tight-lipped amid the Biden administration’s review of several significant foreign arms sales initiated by former President Donald Trump, including a massive $23bn transfer of the F-35s to the UAE.

Israel’s COVID-19 restrictions also prevented it from joining the expo, which would have been a first after it normalised relations with the UAE last year.

But scores of other countries attended, underscoring how many have boosted their arms exports in the region. The flow of weapons in the Middle East has increased by 61 percent over the past five years, according to a recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, amid grinding proxy wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

China, which boasts the world’s second-largest arms-manufacturing industry, enticed passers-by with a lifesized ballistic missile called “Fire Dragon”.

At state-owned Norinco, business manager Luo Haopeng remarked that China had increased its floor space this year. Beyond his company “serving” Emirati ground forces, he declined to elaborate on its ambitions in the Middle East, where China has already has sold armed drones to Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.