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The Dubai Airshow 2021 and Euro-Gulf Relations in the Aviation Sector

BY Arnold Koka



The Dubai Airshow 2021 and Euro-Gulf Relations in the Aviation Sector

The Exhibition
The UAE hosted the most robust civil and defence aviation event of the year—the Dubai Airshow 2021 (14-18 November) which featured more than 1200 companies, 84000 attendees from 148 countries, 314 civil and military delegations, 161 aircrafts on display and more than 20 country pavilions. Some countries were present for the first time with their national pavilions, notably Israel, Australia and Brazil. From Europe, new entrees included: Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The exhibit fell under Abu Dhabi’s wider Make it in the Emirates campaign to increase local research and development, manufacturing as well as the production of advanced technological products all of which are part of the country’s wider Operation 300bn ten-year strategy to position the Emirates as a global industrial hub by 2031. The event is also an attempt by the aviation industry to signal its, urgent, willingness to recover from the 2020 economic downturn, which caused some $138 billion (USD) in net losses to the sector.

The Deals
The five-days airshow concluded with a total of $78 billion (USD) worth of deals signed, exceeding the outcomes of the 2019 edition by over $27 billion (USD).

In the commercial aviation area, the French giant Airbus dominated the exhibition’s market. The Paris-based multinational inked multibillion-worth deals in sales of over 400 aircrafts, way ahead of the over 100 planes placed by its main US competitor, Boeing. Airbus’ sales included a deal with Kuwaiti-owned airline, Jazeera Airways, which ordered 28 A320neo and A321neo aircrafts. The deal was reportedly valued at around $3 billion (USD). A significant negotiation was also held between Riyadh’s national airline, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), Airbus and Boeing. Saudia discussed the purchase of over 200 aircrafts with the two aviation giants, in a deal to be sealed in 2022, although details were not disclosed.

On the defense side, some notable partnerships were established between European companies and the UAE. Abu Dhabi reported that the country signed 23 deals, for a total worth of $6.1 billion (USD). Contracts included cooperation in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) as well as technical services for air force and air defence systems between the UAE and European firms, such as:

  1. Agusta Westland Aviation Services (Italy-UAE),
  2. Dassault Aviation (France),
  3. Rheinmetall Air Defence Ag (Switzerland),
  4. Sielman (Greece),
  5. Thales (France),
  6. Space S.A.U (Spain)

In a narrower sector, the Finnish satellite provider, Iceye, the world biggest operator of Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites, announced it will partner with Emirati AI company, G42, on AI-driven geospatial analytics services.

During the event, the Italian defence giant Leonardo also inked a deal with Riyadh’s defence firm, Saudia Aerospace Engineering Industries (SAEI), to collaborate on MRO services for its AW-139 helicopter, with prospects of extension in services also to the AW609 vertical take-off convertiplane, presented for the first time during the event.

Abu Dhabi also inked relevant deals with Israel—Tel Aviv took part in the exhibition with six of its main defence companies: Astronautics, Elbit Systems, Nir-Or, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael, Tomer and UVision. A day before the airshow commenced, Elbit Systems announced the launch of a subsidiary based in the UAE, the Elbit Systems Emirates. Additionally, the Emirati defence firm, EDGE Group, and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), announced a partnership to develop commercial and military unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and the establishment of a joint centre on advanced electro-optical arrays.

The Strategy
Such partnerships are crucial for the regional defence industries of the Gulf countries, which aim to expand their domestic military procurements as part of a rising technological-nationalism in the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have respectively established their national industrial frameworks to develop their military industry (Barzan Holding for Doha, SAMI for Riyadh, EDGE Group for Abu Dhabi). The establishment of joint ventures along with MRO, technical and development partnerships, allow for know-how and technology transfers that are essential for the creation of national industrial ecosystems in the Gulf. This assumes a higher relevance when Israel’s involvement is taken into account, due to the strategic impact of defence cooperation on the wider issue of regional stability.

Finally, the aviation industry is an important part of the Gulf states’ broader national Visions for the future, which aims towards economic diversification and digital transformation. Technologically advanced national airline fleets serve strategically for the Gulf states’ plans to expand their tourism sector and to become commercial hubs.