ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- The Middle East's premier arms exhibition opens Sunday in Abu Dhabi amid forecasts that the region's military spending is set to grow by 14 percent over five years.
The biannual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, known as IDEX, is also being held Sunday-Thursday as oil prices have once more risen through the $100 level, driven in part by the regional pro-democracy turmoil that has reached the Arab producers of the Persian Gulf.
Escalating tensions between Iran on the one hand and the United States and Israel on the other have led to a major drive by the Arab states in the gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to acquire more advanced and powerful weapons systems.
High oil prices provide the gulf states with vast amounts of petrodollars to fund ambitious military procurement programs. Recent analyses predict that the gulf Arab monarchies will spend $122 billion on advanced combat jets, integrated missile defense systems, main battle tanks, attack helicopters and warships over the next decade or two.
The combination of the rising oil prices -- the current level is around $103 per barrel, the highest mark since September 2008 -- and growing concerns in the gulf that they, too, will be infected by the political turmoil sweeping the region is a heady mix.
Whether, as some industry analysts suggest, this will trigger further arms purchases isn't clear.
But with strategic arms procurement seemingly already in hand, any fresh spending is likely to be directed at strengthening internal security forces to counter any threat against the regimes in place.
However, this turmoil could be exploited by Tehran, as may be the case with the current unrest in Bahrain, the only Arab state in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council alliance to have a Shiite majority.
IDEX officials say 1,060 companies will exhibit at the show in Abu Dhabi, the emirates' capital. That's a record since the expo was launched in 1993 and more than 100 higher than IDEX 2009.
This year's exhibitors include the Lockheed Martin Corp. of Maryland, the Boeing Co. of Chicago, France's Dassault Aviation, Finmeccanica of Italy which supplies warships to the gulf states, Germany's Rheinmetall AG, and Russia's state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, which notched sales of $10 billion in 2010.
The arms show will run simultaneously with a naval defense exhibition, NAVDEX 2011, with 81 companies participating. Warships from the emirates' navy, Britain, Italy and France will be on display.
The 2009 show produced a record $5 billion in arms deals and with a couple of dozen big-ticket contracts currently nearing fruition, this year's edition could top that.
Many of the deals involve U.S. defense contractors linked to a massive arms sale to U.S. allies in the Middle East to bolster their military capabilities to counter an expansionist Iran.
The Emirates, for instance, is negotiating with the Pentagon for three Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile systems known as THAAD, to counter Iran's growing missile arsenal across the gulf.
That $7 billion deal was cleared by the U.S. Congress in September. The Emirates will be the first regional state to be armed with THAAD.
It's manufactured by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Other key contractors are Boeing, the Raytheon Corp. and Honeywell.
U.S. companies have long dominated the gulf arms market. They accounted for 54 percent of all sales in 2005-09, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors global arms sales, says. France was second with 35 percent.
SIPRI said the biggest market share for the Americans was the tiny emirate of Qatar, with U.S. firms supplying 98 percent of all new weapons systems. Qatar signed a security agreement with Washington in January.
Russia, Britain and China made up most of the remaining arms sales. Russian and Chinese exports went primarily to Iran, which has been under a Western arms embargo for three decades.
"The U.S. arms sales to these countries are meant to improve the defense capabilities of the recipient nations, reinforce the sense of U.S. solidarity with its GCC partners and, finally, create a semblance of interoperability with American forces," observed Dan Darling, a Middle East defense analyst with Forecast International of the United States.
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