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“No one here calls this an arms fair‚” admonishes Guy Douglas, head of media relations for the Middle East, Africa and India at BAE Systems (the UK’s largest defence contractor and its biggest manufacturing employer). “It might sound twee‚” he continues, furrowing his brow, “but this is actually a defence show.”

That is, indeed, how IDEX – the International Defence Exhibition, held biannually at Abu Dhabi’s impressive International Exhibitions Centre – brands itself. Any arms-trade protester who makes it past the batteries of metal detectors and security guards expecting to find a bunch of George C Scott lookalikes chomping on cigars and discussing gun-running, will instead find themselves in a gleaming hall in which the 906 exhibition stands from 50 countries are manned by floor-walkers with bright teeth and well-cut suits.

Any resemblance to a standard trade fair is painstakingly intentional. “This is a business like any other,” insists Douglas. It’s also one of the world’s biggest businesses. This year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates the US will spend over $700bn (€535bn) on defence; China comes in second, at $87bn (€66bn), with the UK in fourth place ($66bn/€50bn) just behind France ($70bn/€53bn) and ahead of Russia ($31bn/€24bn).

Douglas’s company, BAE Systems, has just posted record profits of £1bn (€1.49bn), despite intermittent corruption probes. And as the setting of this, the eighth IDEX, the United Arab Emirates is far from a random choice. In a security conscious region, the UAE and Saudi Arabia regularly top the table of arms-importing developing nations. The UAE military celebrates the opening of IDEX 2007 by announcing it has signed deals worth around 775m dirhams (€161m) with local and international companies participating at the show.

The organisers expect around $2bn (€1.52bn) worth of deals to be struck by the 55 overseas delegations in attendance – from as far afield as Kazakhstan and Australia. Most of Africa, not to mention Israel and North Korea, are conspicuous by their absence during IDEX’s five-day run. But however smooth its public face, controversy always stalks an industry whose idea of defence looks very much like attack to the eye of the layman.

The incongruities start piling up even before you enter the hall. A sign in the lobby informs you that pistols, grenades, rockets and knuckle-dusters are not allowed to be taken inside unless they’ve been “officially sanctioned”. Once inside, gleaming hardware – a brilliant white ship-launched Exocet missile, an eight-wheeled, turret-encrusted Piranha armoured fighting vehicle, a Steyr AVG-A1 assault rifle – is mounted and spotlit like art installations.

On the Glock stand, UAE army cadets are caressing the battery of pistols, while a South Korean navy captain is stopped dead in his tracks by a French torpedo in a shade of canary yellow. But for all the professed openness of the individual stands – come in, have a browse, please accept this Chinook mousemat with our compliments – there are limits.

One would-be buyer is discussing the Exocet’s GPS-based navigation and guidance package and laser gyro inertial measurement unit, but then has the temerity to enquire after its price. After failing to placate him with demurrals – “that all depends on overall packages and set-asides, of course, sir” – the assistant stonily refers him to the company website, and goes off to skulk behind a Javelin anti-tank missile.

But the socio-cultural-geo-political values are easier to interpret, thanks to the profusion of national pavilions. The presiding spirit at the US pavilion is of the more-bang-for-your-buck Hollywood action producer Jerry Bruckheimer; at Boeing, a huge plasma touch screen video-jukebox showcases the Harpoon P8-A missile with footage of launches and explosions, accompanied by a soft-rock soundtrack and split-screen effects.

The Chinese pavilion is equally gung-ho, with Tonka-style model missile launchers arrayed beneath a screen showing a computer-generated cartoon of those same missiles blasting a generic low-slung building to smithereens.

The British pavilion is lower-key (“I think different national characteristics come through in these kinds of situations,” grins BAE’s Douglas), despite featuring some real live soldiers, who dutifully don body armour and demonstrate the tiered gun emplacements on an enhanced Land Rover.

One of the men, Warrant Officer Wiggy Watt, is prevailed upon to assure a stiff-backed visitor in a brass-buttoned blazer that there is no sinister significance to the fact that the Land Rover’s Sat Nav system is centred on the Northern English town of Blackburn.

“This is a strange gig,” Watt muses, as the blazered man marches off. “We’re just here to raise awareness, not sell things,” he adds, a mantra repeated throughout the show. “It’s just a showcase for us, a chance to exchange ideas. People can get a better feel for what we have to offer. I mean, you can’t bring one of these to a business meeting, can you?” he concludes, tapping the Land Rover.

Elsewhere, there are piquant juxtapositions; a sullen Serbia squats in a corner of the Russian pavilion amid a desultory selection of what look like Stalin-vintage mortars, while the Pakistan pavilion reveals a rich seam of mordant irony; how else to explain a pistol called a Gandhi lined up next to a sub-machine gun called a Bash & Bash.

Common to all the stands and pavilions is a backdrop of mission-statement slogans including “Advancing Survivability” at Boeing and “Optimising Human Performance” at Armor Holdings. “Look, we’re all aware of the uses that these products are put to,” says BAE’s Guy Black. “But it’s not like we’re trying to evade certain words. Like any industry, we have our own language.”

Two buzzwords prevalent at the show hint at future trends and directions. The first is “asymmetrical”. “It’s the new kind of war we’re having to fight in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” says Adam Thomas, protocol officer at Britain’s Defence Export Services Organisation. “The world’s best-trained and best-equipped armies are coming up against this new kind of unpredictable but coordinated and prolonged threat from terrorists and insurgents. It calls for ingenuity and flexibility in the methods and tools we use to counter them.”

At IDEX, these “tools” include UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) such as the Skyeye, a mini helicopter weighing less than 1kg and with a video camera that’s capable of “silently probing buildings for suspected terrorists”. Then there’s the Negotiator Tactical Surveillance Robot (an unmanned ground vehicle) that can climb stairs on its caterpillar tracks and send “hostage situation” video footage to its Operator Control Unit.

The second buzzword is “security”. “We’re aware that threats can fall from the sky, come up through the drains, or be blown on the air,” says Douglas. “There’s an over-riding need to feel safe.”

The interpretation of this concept takes many forms at IDEX. There are Centigon’s armoured Mercedes and Suburbans: “The doors and glass will deflect an assault rifle round and the floor is protected against hand grenades,” explains the company’s Matt Burke. Meanwhile, over at DuPont, Andreas Fries displays the new-generation of bulletproof camo-fatigues (“the weave of Kevlar and Nomex [fibres] is even tighter than before, while still being breathable,”) on a mannequin collaged in various national patterns. “The Norwegians wanted something dark and brooding,” he says, “and the Belgians wanted a muddier look, but at least they’ve stuck to organic prints, while the US,” he shakes his head, “has gone digital.”

But perhaps the starkest manifestation of “security” comes via John N Rassias, a trim ex-Marine who is captivating passing security operatives from South Africa and Dubai with his patented SLASH (Strapless Locking Action Shoulder Holster). “It’s not a holster, it’s a weapon platform,” elaborates Rassias, who reveals that he came up with the idea after a friend was shot with his own gun by a vagrant he was attempting to help.

As the sun sets, the generals and majors and emirs and admirals are reluctant to leave – after all, the tanks are still lumbering around the demonstration area, there’s still one last AK47 trigger to pull and one last opportunity to feel the weight of a shoulder-hoisted rocket launcher while your friends capture the moment on their camera-phones.

The biggest achievement of IDEX is to display the paraphernalia of war and conflict to maximum advantage while rendering the messy business of both all but invisible. As Douglas says, “You’d expect to drink wine at a wine fair, wouldn’t you? Well, some could call it a necessary evil, but this is what we do.”

What they bought:

The Gulf States and their neighbours are a key market for arms sales with some 10 per cent of the GDPs of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman being spent on defence. Concern in the region over the growing influence of Iran means that expenditure will continue to rise. During IDEX 2007, hosts the UAE announced deals worth 3.3bn Dirhams (€681m) with both overseas and regional companies. These included contracts for everything from bullet-proof vests from Al Naboodah, a Dubai-based manufacturer, to a deal with France’s Dasault to provide spares and technical support for the emirates Mirage 2000 Aircraft. Support services are a key element of the defence trade and the UAE also announced contracts covering the maintenance of its army vehicles – the deal went to local firm Al Taif – and even medical services. The UAE works with companies from a large number of nations: Russia and Germany’s defence industries also concluded deals with the UAE that were announced at IDEX.

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