DUBAI: After sizzling with record jetliner purchases from Gulf airlines in recent years, next week’s Dubai Airshow will be dominated by the presence of arms manufacturers as Gulf states weigh their security needs in a region increasingly on edge.
The Middle East’s top aviation event won’t be devoid of the commercial swagger which dominated past shows, but regional conflict, low oil prices and a trade dispute with U.S. airlines mean the Nov 8-12 event is likely to be a more low-key affair.
“The focus will be on military for the reason that the security environment in the region is deteriorating further,” said Mustafa Alani, director of defense & security at the Gulf Research Centre (GRC), a thinktank.
Security in the Gulf and wider Middle East is at its most uncertain in years, with the region’s conflicts sending hundreds of thousands of homeless into Europe and Islamic State expanding its anti-Shi’ite sectarian campaign of bombings from Iraq and Syria into the Gulf Arab states, Yemen, Libya and Egypt.
The region is the largest market driver in the industry with billions of dollars spent annually on military equipment. The fighting in Syria and Yemen may bolster demand for defense hardware, though few deals will be signed at the show itself.
A recent deal between Iran and world powers over the country’s nuclear activities has rattled states on the other side of the Gulf, while last week’s Russian airliner crash in Egypt has increased the focus on security concerns.
“This will mostly be a military show,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Virginia-based Teal Group.
Host nation UAE has been in on-off talks for 60 fighters with France’s Dassault Aviation for Rafales and Britain’s BAE Systems for Eurofighter Typhoons.
Regional arms buyers are also looking for surveillance and patrol aircraft since militaries in the region are relatively under-equipped, Aboulafia said.
“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs could be part of that solution too. So expect a heavy presence from people promoting these,” Aboulafia added.
In a first for any international show, according to organizers, UAVs — more commonly known as drones — will be taking part in the flying displays.
Key exhibitors include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and Dassault with newcomers including Oshkosh of the U.S. and Turkey’s Roketsan, maker of rockets and missiles including air defense systems.
Over 1,100 exhibitors are participating at the biennial show, which will see 160-plus aircraft on display including Canada’s CSeries jetliner, looking for a much-needed sales boost as its manufacturer Bombardier addresses cash woes.
The Gulf’s three big carriers announced orders with Boeing and Airbus for over 400 jets at the last Dubai Air Show in 2013.
But the expansion plans of Dubai’s Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways could slow as low oil prices curtail investments and trade, according to some analysts.
That in turn may increase pressure on jetliner prices.
The finance chief of British Airways owner IAG told planemakers on Friday that they should make concessions or see airlines stick with older planes.
Boeing has played down expectations of large commercial orders at the show, but there might be some big announcements.
“Never say never; there might be some surprises. You have one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world here,” an Abu Dhabi government source said, declining to be more specific.
Attention will also be on Qatar, which is gearing up to host the soccer World Cup in 2022 and whose national airline may need to expand its fleet to cope with an influx of fans.
Asked ahead of the show whether Qatar Airways would expand its fleet of wide-bodies that includes Airbus A380s, Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker said “wait and see”