By Simon Saradzhyan and Breffni O'Rourke
Abu Dhabi, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The International Arms Exhbition in full swing in the United Arab Emirates resembles a bazaar on a superlative scale.
IDEX, as it is known, draws arms manufacturers to the Persian Gulf from all corners of the world to hawk their wares. This year some 700 companies from 45 countries are vying for sales of thousands of millions of dollars worth of sophisticated defence equipment. The international arms market is severely overcrowded, and the bargains being driven at IDEX this week are harder even than those traditionally haggled out at Middle Eastern bazaars.
The United States and Russia, the world's largest and second largest arms exporters, are dominating presences at the show. Russia's delegation consists of a team of 350 people with 500 products from 80 flagship companies.
But the Russians are not content to stay in second place. The general director of the state arms agency Rosvooruzhenye, major general Alexandr Koletkin, told journalists at IDEX today that Russia is aiming for parity in arms sales with the United States by 1999. He said Russia's annual sales would have to reach a level of some $7 billion to do that, and he believed this is feasible. Comparing the global arms business to a cocktail, he said "it's going to taste more and more of Russian vodka".
Koletkin said Russian companies at present have firm contracts for some $8 billion worth of goods. And he claimed that IDEX's home ground, namely the Mideast, now accounts for some 40 percent of Russian arms exports.
His upbeat comments follow those of a Rosvooruzhenye spokesman in Moscow before the show. Vitaly Pogrebenkov told an RFE/RL correspondent that the expected absence from the show of Defence Minister Igor Rodionov would be a "formidable loss." Rodionov reportedly cancelled his participation because of the cabinet re-shuffle now going on in Moscow.
Pogrebenkov said the Russian arms team would have to make a "maximum effort" to make up for the loss of Rodionov, whose rank would have enabled him to negotiate with top commanders of the oil rich Gulf countries that are traditionally the most generous customers at IDEX. In 1995 Russia dispatched then Defence Minister Pavel Grachev. Last year it was First Deputy Defence Minister Andrei Kokoshin who led the Russian delegation.
So far, however, fierce competition between western companies for a $6 billion order from the United Arab Emirates for fighter planes has captured most of the news at IDEX. The sale is being billed as the single biggest fighter order remaining this century. Abu Dhabi has recieved new offers from French contender Rafale as well the British Eurofighter consortium. The offers are designed to undercut the U.S. contender, the F-16 of Lockheed Martin. A UAE military spokesman yesterday said "the French offer is very good... better than before".
But the Russians are active in an enormous range of fields. Submarine maker Rubin reported yesterday that the UAE and "some other countries" in the region are "very interested" in the Kilo class 636 stealth submarines. The stealth is more advanced than the three Kilo subs which Rubin has supplied to Iran, the neighbour across the gulf which the Arab states eye nervously.
Pogrebenkov said in Moscow that the Russian team is heavily promoting air defence systems which will include such stars as the Buk-M1 medium range air defence system, the portable anti-aircraft system Igla as well as Tor-M1 which is designed to hunt high-precision air-strike weaponry.
Also on display is the S-300 air defence missile system which, the makers say, can hit flying targets as small as a duck at a range of 150 kilometers, and can be put into an operative mode within five minutes. The S-300 is directly competing for key orders with the U.S company Raytheon's Patriot system, which won fame in the gulf war for its interception of Iraqi missiles. The sale of the S-300 system to Cyprus was recently at the centre of a row between Turkey and Cyprus.