At a ‘Defense’ Expo, an Antiseptic World of Weaponry

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates--Serbia showed off armored vehicles, rockets and rifles, and drew in passers-by with a video showing soldiers shooting targets to action movie music.

Pakistan had glass cases full of bullets, mortars, grenades and guns, including a gold-plated AK-47.

And Sudan displayed an antiaircraft missile and its launcher. A salesman in a white robe and snakeskin shoes pointed out that it was an upgraded model. “Now they have a wider area of explosion,” he said proudly.

Such casual sales pitches for lethal merchandise coursed through the carpeted halls of this wealthy Arab city’s convention center this week, where more than 1,200 military technology companies and contractors from around the world convened to hawk their wares.

The event, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, or IDEX, is the largest show of its kind in the Middle East, and it had the feel of a high-end arms bazaar, a megamall where men in dark suits browsed Estonian drones, Chinese tanks, Brazilian amphibious vehicles and guns from all over.

There was so much weaponry inside that visitors got searched not just on the way in, but also on the way out.

The exhibition served to promote Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which has distinguished itself as a regional hub for international business at a time when wars and uprisings have upended other Arab states.

It also provided a visual layout of the global arms trade, which is at its most active since the end of the Cold War, analysts say.

International transfers of major weapons over the last five years were 8.3 percent higher than during the previous five-year period, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a recent report.

Much of that traffic was in the Middle East, where wars are raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and where Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia have beefed up their arsenals because of worries about Iran.

Arms deals worth more than $5.2 billion were announced during the five-day event, which ended on Thursday, according to Gulf News.

Regional and international realities lurked not far below the glittering surface.

The United States had the most floor space, befitting its status as the world’s largest arms exporter. More than 100 American companies were present, with elaborate displays showing everything from handguns to armored vehicles to drones.

Iran, referred to by one defense executive as “the big guy across the strait,” was not invited. Nor was Israel, another major weapons producer.

But dozens of other countries were, highlighting how many have expanded their arms exports to earn money and build alliances.

Many at the show noted the size of the Chinese display, where eight state-run companies advertised boats, tanks, missiles and other items. Standing next to a real-life tank, Ji Yanzhao, deputy director for marketing at Norinco, said that his company was targeting the Middle Eastern market, which is why it had brought not one but two armored vehicles to display.

“The real thing always does better than the models,” he said, as another visitor smiled for a photo with the tank.

Tate Nurkin, senior director for strategic assessments at IHS Jane’s, said that many middle-income countries had entered the arms business over the last decade and now provided lower-cost alternatives for states on tight budgets.

That list has expanded recently in the Middle East, where low oil prices have left some Arab states looking for bargains where previously they snapped up top-of-the-line items.

“They don’t need to buy just American high-end equipment,” Mr. Nurkin said. “They can buy from China and it’s good enough.”

As a Middle East correspondent, during visits to Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen I have seen up close the human cost to communities on the receiving end of many of these weapons. So after a few hours of wandering between displays, I began feeling overwhelmed.

They ranged in size and approach, but the marketing language focused on “defense,” as if none of the weapons could be used to invade one’s neighbor, break up families or create refugees.

Nowhere did I see images of blood, injuries or death.

“It’s a very dangerous world and region, and there are things worth defending, and that requires some of this equipment,” Mr. Nurkin said. “But it can be a bit disconcerting for those who have never been to defense exhibitions to see them being traded like iPhones.”

Poongsan, a South Korean company, had bullets of different sizes arranged in lighted glass cases, like jewelry. Glock, the Austrian gun maker, had more than a dozen pistols out for visitors to cock, aim and take selfies with, making it one of the most visited stalls.

“It’s because we have the best goodies,” a woman behind the counter explained before correcting herself. “The best products.”

Many of the marketing slogans made sense only if you knew what the product did.

“Sees with out being seen,” boasted an ad for a Czech-made radar system.

“Your aim is our target,” promised a company displaying swiveling targets for marksmanship.

“Nothing escapes you,” said an ad for an optics company that makes, among other things, rifle scopes.

Sudan’s section featured a two-story fake stone castle surrounded by displays of rifles, rockets and a large, gray GPS-guided bomb.

“It is a very accurate way to hit a target,” said Ibrahim Ismael Bashir, the sales and marketing director for Sudan’s Military Industry Corporation.

In a small room nearby, I picked up a Sudanese machine gun simulator and blasted away at targets on a screen as martial ballads played in the background.

One of the most photographed items was a gold-plated AK-47 displayed by Pakistan. Muhammad Iqbal, the technical manager for weapons at the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, said the rifle cost about $1,000 and was usually bought by collectors or presented to foreign dignitaries, especially from the Middle East.

“They are very fond of this,” he said.

But the show was not all about weapons.

“Come on, I’ll show you the robot,” said Paul Bosscher, the chief engineer for robotic systems at Harris, of Melbourne, Fla., which focuses on communication technology.

On display was the company’s new robot, T7, which stands about six feet tall, moves about on treads and has a single arm with a big metal pincer on the end. Armored, covered with cameras and controlled remotely, it was designed to defuse bombs and, the company hopes, save lives--not just of civilians but also the soldiers and the police who have to cope with the explosives.

As I gripped the controller and directed the robot to stack lengths of plastic pipe, a man posed next to it while his friend took a photo.

“Who doesn’t want to get their photo with a robot?” Mr. Bosscher said.