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UAE arms expo draws major traders amid pandemic; Israel, US stay home

In spite of the surging coronavirus pandemic, major arms makers descend on a convention center in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, hoping to make deals with militaries across the Middle East.

The UAE unveiled $1.36 billion 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, defense experts anticipate a drop in military spending this year as the pandemic and slumping global oil prices squeeze budgets in the Persian Gulf.

The biennial trade fair, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, is Abu Dhabi’s first major in-person event since the outbreak of the virus — a sign of its significance to the oil-rich sheikhdom that has maintained tight movement restrictions in recent months. Zoom won’t suffice for the 70,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors who rely on the largest weapons expo in the Mideast to scout for potential clients and hawk their latest wares, from armored vehicles to ballistic missiles.

An F-35 fighter jets comes in for a landing during a surprise exercise, ‘Galilee Rose,’ in February 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Top Emirati officials, including Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, are on hand, wandering between displays of rifles, rockets and bombs.

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

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

Israeli COVID restrictions also prevented it from joining the expo, which would have been a first after it normalized relations with the UAE last year. A technician at the Israeli Aerospace Industry booth spends a good portion of the afternoon turning away disappointed potential customers.

But scores of other countries have no qualms showing up during the pandemic, underscoring how many have boosted their exports in the region. The flow of arms in the Middle East has increased by 61% over the past five years, according to a recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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