Last updated: February 25, 2013 1:28 pm

Abu Dhabi pushes for homegrown defence

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People walk around as they visit the opening of the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in the Emirati capital on February 17, 2013. A top French defence industry official said that talks to sell Rafale jet fighters to the UAE were "progressing well", expressing confidence that a deal could be reached with the Gulf state.©AFP

Abu Dhabi is pressing hard to build a homegrown arms industry, part of a push by Gulf governments to use their status as leading international weapons buyers to create domestic jobs and diversify away from oil.

Tawazun, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned defence company, has this month announced a flurry of deals to supply components to big western businesses, in what analysts see as part of a quid pro quo for contracts multinationals hope to win in the Gulf.

Tawazun and other, much less developed, homegrown defence initiatives in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman are part of a wider Gulf country strategy to make themselves more secure at a time of increasing tensions in the region.

“It’s a desire by the UAE to become more self-sufficient,” says Theodore Karasik, director of research at Inegma, a Dubai-based consultancy. “In the last decade, the UAE has been the leader of this type of activity. It’s the intention of the rest of the GCC countries to catch up.”

At the huge Idex arms fair in Abu Dhabi last week, products such as Tawazun’s Nimr armoured vehicle – the first piece of military hardware built entirely in the UAE – were heavily promoted by the government and state-owned media.

One of the deals announced was for Tawazun to produce five components for the German-made Skyshield air-defence system, and a key part for a new Eurofighter advanced multipurpose warplane.

In a sign of how Abu Dhabi’s ambitions span the full spectrum of military activity, Ammroc – an aircraft maintenance joint venture between the emirate’s Mubadala Aerospace, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp and Lockheed Martin of the US – signed a deal with the UAE navy.

“They want to develop their own manufacturing capability, they want to develop their own services and maintenance capability,” says Ivor Ichikowitz, founder of Paramount Group, the South African defence company.

One of the main drivers of this approach is concern about the security situation in the Gulf. Several countries in the region are making or considering multibillion dollar investments in hardware ranging from missile defence systems to surveillance drones, reflecting worries ranging from increasing international tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme to political unrest that has swept through the Middle East over the past two years.

Gulf rulers are also aware they need in the long term to break the cycle of oil dependence and lavish official patronage that results in many nationals preferring to work in well-paid and undemanding government jobs rather than in the private sector. While the UAE is more economically hedged than some of its neighbours, oil still accounts for the overwhelming part of Abu Dhabi’s revenues – and companies such as Tawazun are part of a wide-ranging nascent industrialisation project.

“The aim is both to be defence-capable and part of the diversification of the economy,” Obeid al-Ketbi, a UAE military spokesman, told reporters at Idex.

Yet for all the international deals Gulf military companies have secured so far, analysts say many uncertainties and obstacles still confront them.

One is their ability to win business independently and without political favours. Tawazun is a creation of the UAE’s so-called military “offset” programmes, in which multinational arms companies agree to do business with it, in exchange for arms deals with the government.

When Philip Dunne, Britain’s defence procurement minister, spoke warmly last week of how military equipment sales would become an “increasingly two-way traffic”, analysts pointed out that his remarks were made in the context of Britain’s eagerness to win a lucrative contract to sell up to 60 Typhoon warplanes to UAE.

Enzo Casolini, chief executive of Eurofighter, the Typhoon’s manufacturer, said at Idex that it was “normal” for a country such as the UAE to demand “a return in technology, investment in the area and industrial participation”.

“That’s what the whole offset programme is all about,” says a foreign government official. “There is a conscious effort [in the UAE] to say, ‘if you want to do business, you have to do something here’.”

Another yet to be determined aspect of the Gulf’s new defence champions’ prospects is whether they are, or ever will be, commercially viable. Tawazun does not appear to publish financial data, and it declined to answer a series of questions from the Financial Times about its revenues, profitability and whether it was receiving government money.

Multinational executives and analysts say a further potential difficulty facing the indigenous Gulf weapons manufacturers is the reluctance of some big western companies to share technology.

“In some cases we’re able to produce everything in the country, using the supply chain for the parts and actually building and integrating and maintaining the vehicles in that country,” says John Urias, president of Oshkosh, the US armoured truckmaker. “In other cases, where there is a technology transfer issue, which does occur from time to time, then we may have to produce the vehicles in the US – and sell the vehicles to the country in the GCC.”

On the last day of Idex, the UAE military announced a spending spree, including the purchase of 1,000 Nimr vehicles. The big question now is whether Tawazun will be able to attract similar interest in its products from buyers other than its own government.

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