TEL AVIV, Israel, April 8 (UPI) -- Israel Shipyards is reported to have secured a $100 million contract with Equatorial Guinea for two Saar-class corvettes to protect offshore oil fields, boosting Israel's defense sales drive in Africa.
But the Jewish state's defense industry, now a major exporter, is also targeting Latin America and major companies like Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems hope to notch up deals worth millions of dollars at next week's arms expo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Globes business daily reported that Israel's military exports in 2010 exceeded $7.3 billion, according to provisional figures from defense companies. That's expected to hit $7.4 billion when the final tally is completed, equaling the record reached in 2009, Defense Ministry officials said.
Israel's military exports have been rising steadily for the last five years. But Defense Ministry officials caution that trend is likely to be reversed in the years ahead because of stiff defense budget cutbacks in Europe and other factors.
So the increased focus on Africa and Latin America, where Israeli arms companies have made inroads, is intended to compensate for the anticipated downturn in exports.
The Africa Intelligence Web site, which monitors the continent's military affairs, said a key figure in securing the Israel Shipyards deal was Yardena Ovadia, Israel's honorary consul in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital.
It said Ovadia, an Israeli of Moroccan descent, has "solid connections" with the entourage of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, whose regime is flush with petrodollars from its burgeoning oil industry.
"Thanks to those contacts, several Israeli military companies have already landed major contracts in Equatorial Guinea," the Web site reported.
These include mobile observation platforms sold by Aeronautics Defense Systems and Shaldag-class naval patrol vessels in a joint venture between Israel Shipyards, a privately owned yard in Haifa, Israel's main naval base, and Israel Military Industries.
Obiang's presidential guard is being trained by Israeli security firms linked to retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Ilya and South Africa-based arms dealer Boaz Bedihi, Africa Intelligence reported.
Ilya has long been involved in the sale of Israeli weapons and equipment arms to Nigeria, even though he's not officially accredited to Israel's Defense Ministry, which controls military exports.
Over the years, some Israeli arms deals, involving former military personnel, have been on the shady side.
Ilya was a key figure in a controversial $260 million deal in 2005 to provide Nigeria with Aerostar and Seastar unmanned surveillance systems to combat insurgents in the Niger Delta, center of the country's all-important oil industry.
The deal went through Aeronautics Venture, a subsidiary of Israel's Aeronautics Defense Systems Co. which had close links to the defense establishment through retired senior officers.
Israel's Defense Ministry has backed efforts to boost military exports to Africa, including Equatorial Guinea, despite the unsavory character of Obiang's authoritarian regime.
This reportedly angered the Foreign Ministry, which blocked an official visit to Israel by Obiang some years ago.
Israeli defense firms, many of them state-owned, and private security companies have been dealing with Central and South America since the 1970s.
IAI, flagship of Israel's defense industry; Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems, which specializes in electronics, will attend the Latin American Aerospace and Defense Exhibition in Rio de Janeiro.
Some of these firms have maintained sales of around $500 million annually to Brazil, the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.
In 2010, Brazil signed a confidentiality agreement with Israel guaranteeing that it won't transfer classified technology to third parties. That opened the door for Israeli companies to put some of their most advanced systems on offer.
In May 2010, IAI won a $350 million contract to supply Brazil's federal police force with long-range Heron unmanned aerial vehicles.
Elbit secured two large Brazilian contracts, including one in January 2010 to supply Hermes 450 surveillance UAVs to the Brazilian air force.
The Post reported that Israeli security firms are bidding for multimillion-dollar contracts as well as homeland security deals ahead of the 2014 World Cup, which will be in Brazil, followed by the Olympic Games in 2016.
IAI has a $150 million contract, signed in late 2007, to upgrade the Colombian air force's 24 IAI-built Kfir fighter jets, and supply additional aircraft.