The great Middle East politics expert, Neil Partrick, shared the following with us. It is his article on the DSEI defence/arms fair in Docklands this week. You can either read it below or find the original (with far more pictures) on this link to his “Deira Diary” blog:
The first thing that I noticed upon arriving at DSEI was a young mother and baby protesting one of the world’s biggest defence and security exhibitions, or ‘arms fairs’, depending on your point of view. The Excel Centre in London’s Docklands – Newham if you actually live there – played host this week to the biennial defence industry jamboree. The mother and a friend – there were surely many more at a safer distance – chanted ‘arms are for hugging,’ which made the policemen and security guards standing nearby smile.
I entered DSEI in record time, thanks to a very efficient media registration operation, and soon settled in to my usual people and kit-watching mode. It wasn’t long before I wondered what the hell I was doing at this almost absurd spectacle. This was my fourth time of attending; I’ve also been to IDEX in Abu Dhabi and similar events. At the latter, some 20 years ago, I was however speaking at an associated Gulf security conference. At DSEI I was, as ever, unsure of what my role was.
I typically wander around either trying to hook up with existing contacts or just talking to stall-holders about their wares. However there were some undoubted sights to marvel at too. Whether the classic British Centurion tank or a chance for the boys (me included) to play with some guns, there was much spectacle.
I noted that past in-theatre deployments of Russian ultra-babes had been forsaken for more conventional ways of promoting the goods. I gawped at the sheer scale of the UK’s state of the art ‘Tempest’ aircraft (see picture below), which had a steady queue of both men and women wishing to clamber aboard. I stepped outside and admired the huge naval ships in the former London canal-way and the small aircraft or unmanned drones taking to the skies above Docklands. Across the way two huge abandoned warehouses stood as stark reminders of what the area used to be.
Having a Gulf interest, I scoured in vain the DSEI guide for any sign that the Saudis’ much-vaunted planned expansion of their limited defence production capacity was reflected at DSEI. The DSEI website did have a brief about SAMI: the ‘Saudi Arabian Military Industries’ company set up as part of the Kingdom’s ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 (SV2030). But there was no DSEI stall number. SAMI, in partnership with GAMI, the overarching ‘General Authority’ for Saudi military industries is tasked with ensuring that 50% of all new Saudi arms are produced in-country within 11 years and that SAMI becomes a significant arms exporter.
More prosaically, earlier this year a former UK official told me that SAMI was making progress because it was producing small and, he admitted, basic engineering components. ‘Widgets’ was the word that came to my mind. Either way, this is seemingly not enough to warrant hiring a DSEI stand.
The contrast with the UAE was striking. Perhaps having a ‘UAE Pavilion’ wasn’t that surprising as the Emiratis own the Excel Centre in which DSEI is held. However the UAE seems more serious than the Saudis about developing a domestic defence industry. This effort essentially revolves around Tawazun, the state-founded company that since the early 1990s has been promoting in-country defence industry capacity. EDIC, the ‘Emirates Defence Industry Company’, was founded more recently as the country’s overall defence industry platform, but Tawazun has the majority stake in it. Someone on the Tawazun Economic Council (TEC) stall told me that TEC’s focus since 2017 has been on using ‘offsets’ (a de facto Gulf tax on western defence companies who commit to developing local know-how as part of an arms deal) to assist defence and non-defence industry development. TEC is also using its remit to develop local capacity in order to shepherd ostensibly private Emirati companies such as Halcon (part of the Al-Yas Group), who were right next door in the Pavilion. In February 2019 Halcon got a large TEC soft loan as part of the TEC policy to either fund or co-opt local defence businesses[i]. I was told that Halcon employs about 150 people, over half of whom are Emirati and are typically engineers who come to the UK for a post-graduate education. About 30-40% of the components in Halcon’s missile guidance and control systems are imported apparently. This is the all-important electronics component; the rest is done in-country.
On the other side of Halcon’s stand was one belonging to ‘Al-Hamra’, whose smart promo publication boasted of them “Addressing Tomorrow’s Threats, Today”. Their emphasis it seems is on assisting private and public organisations with counter-terrorism and ‘intelligence’ work, something they do across the Middle East and Africa according to their glossy brochure. Sadly there was no one on the Al-Hamra stall to comment further. In fact this was a depressingly familiar experience from past such encounters of mine. It belies the UAE’s go-ahead attitude that seeks to match its regional and extra-regional military ambitions with a greatly expanded supply of domestically produced kit that by definition isn’t beholden to western political sensitivities or technology embargoes. I spoke to the former Tawazun press spokesman who told me that his successor, Mohammed Ahmed, was the only one who could make any comment to me, whether on or off the record. However Mohammed Ahmed had been called away from DSEI on business and would, I was assured, contact me when he returned. He didn’t.
I am ambiguous about missiles. However one that caught my eye was QinetiQ’s ‘Banshee’, which is actually an aerial practice target. Perhaps it was the name that appealed to me, making me think of Siouxsie Sioux’s band, or perhaps it was its attractively bright red colour-scheme and the free key ring.
I wandered into a talk by a representative of Oxford Space Systems who addressed punters on her company’s contribution to the ‘miniaturisation’ of space communication. She mentioned that her company had a UK Ministry of Defence contract for aspects of this work. On my way out I noted that the use of canines in war zones was taking on a very hi-tech dimension (see below).
Oman was out in force at DSEI, commanded by Sheikh Badr bin Saud Al-Busaidi, officially known as ‘the minister responsible for defence affairs’. When I spotted him and his large retinue of unformed Sultanate officers, they were surrounded by UK military and defence industry people. He went on after DSEI to meet with the UK’s new defence secretary Ben Wallace, and to visit Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre.
Oman hosts a new UK naval base and, separately, an army training base. The former, located on the Arabian Sea, is designed to accommodate the UK’s one and only aircraft carrier which is still undergoing operational trials before being scheduled to form a ‘carrier group’, with a still to be trialled second carrier, sometime in 2021[ii]. This intimate British role in Oman’s security was arguably unaffected by our ‘pull-out’ East of Suez in 1971. However its stepping up in recent years has made the UK even more central to the Sultanate’s security, including the highly tense Gulf littoral [i].
Before leaving DSEI, I met with an ex-British military friend. He told me that coming in to DSEI on the DLR that morning he had felt disconcerted by man who sat right next to him. The man in question started wheezing before my friend asked if he was ok. He noted that the man was wearing a ‘Veterans for Peace’ t-shirt and was obviously about to join a protest outside DSEI. An understanding passed between them. ‘Have a peaceful day,’ my friend said at their parting.
[i] February 19 2019, Dania Saadi, https://www.thenational.ae/business/tawazun-to-invest-up-to-dh193m-in-uae-defence-company-halcon-1.827609
[ii] ‘UK carrier begins ‘Westlant 19’ operational trials’, Richard Scott, Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 4, 2019.
[i] See my article for the University of Kingston’s History Department blog contrasting Harold Wilson’s decision to end the UK’s formal defence presence in the Gulf and commitment to defend the Gulf rulers, with the so-called return ‘East of Suez’ under PMs Cameron and May