Most of the Spaniards landed in Abu Dhabi with serious doubts and a great deal of caution about the opportunity of their presence at the fifteenth edition of the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX 2021) and its twin NAVDEX 2021 dedicated to the naval sector.
But they have all returned to Spain with the firm conviction that they were right to attend what is considered to be the best world fair dedicated to the defence industry, which has just become an organisational model for future similar events.
The executives of the nine Spanish companies grouped together in the Spanish pavilion that responded to the double event are already immersed in their daily business. Gone are their fears of meeting up close with people from all over the world, with whom they had to coincide from 21 to 25 February at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), in the midst of the new wave of COVID-19. However, they are now convinced that they were right to make the decision to attend.
This is the view, for example, of the CEO of electronics firm Tecnobit-Grupo Oesia, Luis Furnells; the CEO of strategic satellite services operator Hisdesat, Miguel Ángel García Primo; the president of light tactical all-terrain vehicle manufacturer Uro, Justo Sierra; the president of Escribano Mechanical & Engineering, Javier Escribano; and the CEOs of Instalaza and Expal, Miguel Muñoz and José Manuel Fernández Bosch, respectively.
The Spanish executives consulted agree in recognising and valuing the "great effort" and the "enormous logistical challenge" taken on by the organisers. "IDEX 2021 has surprised me very pleasantly, because I expected to find something very different," says one of the aforementioned executives.
Due to the effects of the pandemic and the general concern about contagion, "I imagined that many fewer professionals from the sector would attend than in other years, but this was not the case". His overall assessment is "very positive", because making a large fair a reality in the current circumstances in a double format requires "having a very professional structure behind it".
The organisers have confirmed that the number of visitors during the five days of the fair was 62,445. These figures are a real accolade for the first major event of the year in a face-to-face format dedicated to defence equipment which, unlike the vast majority, has not been cancelled or delayed.
One aspect highlighted by all those consulted is the excellent result of the strict measures required by the organisers to gain access to either of the two exhibitions. All attendees had to show a negative PCR test carried out less than 48 hours beforehand. By complying with this rule, together with the mandatory use of face masks, the application of social distancing rules and the continuous disinfection of surfaces and pavilions, "we felt totally protected in order to be able to carry out our functions in the safest conditions", they emphasise.
Compared to the previous event, there was undoubtedly a smaller number of exhibitors. But there were various reasons for this. Some firms that had confirmed their presence did not attend the event, but their number was "very small". Organisers say there were around 900 exhibitors from 59 countries and no fewer than 35 national pavilions. Following the UAE's recognition of Israel, it was striking how little of its defence industry, which was expected to stand out, was present, as was the US, the world's most important defence industry.
Washington's low profile was influenced by two factors. The pandemic sweeping the nation and the cooling of relations between the two countries. The cause of the latter is the freezing of the contract for the sale of fifty F-35 fighters - the most advanced in the world's military aircraft fleet - ordered by the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, which was approved in the last days of the Trump administration. Also missing was the presence of senior Pentagon officials, who were limited to Vice Admiral Samuel Paparo, head of Central Command's Naval Forces, the most important part of the US combat deployment.
As the UAE is a key US ally in the Gulf region, the Biden administration is likely to lift the veto before too long and a transaction worth around $10.4 billion will be confirmed. The surprise move has put the Gulf state on alert as its armed forces took advantage of IDEX and NAVDEX to sign contracts worth $5.7 billion, five of them with international firms and 15 with domestic companies, a sector that the Abu Dhabi government is favouring.
While relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi are very strong, it cannot be ruled out that the vice president and prime minister of the Union of Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, may consider increasing his already diversified weapons systems procurement policy as a way to further enhance his varied defence and deterrence capabilities.
For example, Russia chose IDEX for the global launch of its new AK-19 5.56 x 45 millimetre assault rifle, a firearm designed for export as it is the calibre used by NATO countries. And China and the Emirates have a joint project with the Scientific and Technological Innovation Laboratory, which is primarily dedicated to the development of new unmanned aerial vehicles.
The general atmosphere at IDEX and NAVDEX was "similar to usual, although there were fewer trade visitors". Visits by official delegations were fewer than in 2019 and the number of visitors was smaller. But "the perception I have had is that it has been much less than what one would expect from a pandemic like the one we are going through," recalls one of the Spanish managers.
A veteran of international events is inclined to be present in the Defence sector in the Emirates and the Gulf countries, a market that he acknowledges is "very, very, very difficult". But there are "Spanish companies that have persevered" in their attempts to assert their products against other international competitors and "have managed to be recognised as highly reliable companies".
Spanish industry has so far had other geographical areas of preferential attention, but "it has realised the potential of the region and is already making efforts to strengthen its position", says a senior industry official. This is how the Navantia shipyard, which has been present in the exhibition areas of both IDEX and NAVDEX, has understood this for years.
There, Navantia has presented as a world premiere its amphibious transport ship configurator or LPD, an advanced tool that allows to customise and visualise the different modular options that can be articulated to configure a new warship. Also the different alternatives for its new F-110 frigate.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation, Arancha González Laya, who is visiting the region in the run-up to the show, supports the actions of the Spanish defence industry in the Emirates and in the Arab countries of the region. This was reaffirmed by the presence at IDEX and NAVDEX of the Secretary of State for Trade, Xiana Méndez, and the Director General of Armaments and Material, Admiral Santiago Ramón González Gómez. As Javier Escribano, president of Escribano Mechanical & Engineering, says, "we have presented our latest developments at this prestigious showcase thanks to the support of our institutions".