JERUSALEM — With relationships between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries on the mend, more than 40 Israeli companies planned to showcase their military systems at this year’s International Defence Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates for the first time.
But the participation by Israeli companies and officials was thrown into question after Israel extended a closure of its Ben-Gurion International Airport, essentially banning flights to the UAE and elsewhere.
On Feb. 5, the closure was extended to Feb. 21, and an exemptions committee initially refused to approve the travel. Companies hoped that approvals would come through at the last minute, with IDEX set to take place Feb. 21-25.
Expectations were high among Israelis that the event — the largest of its kind in the Middle East — would open doors to new countries and increase sales in existing markets in the Gulf and beyond. Amid a global pandemic, many companies — including Israel’s three defense giants Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems — have curtailed participation in recent trade shows.
In an interview prior to the closure extension, Mati Weinberg, chief executive of ISDEF, which helps produce exhibitions in Israel, said the show will be a significant opportunity for Israeli companies. “For the first time in history they will be in an Arabic land and show what Israel has.”
While Israeli companies are seeking to take part publicly in a large pavilion for the first time in the UAE, those firms and their subsidiaries abroad have previously sold products in regional markets. Weinberg said the only difference now is that “everything is open and [we can] talk about it.
In interviews with many of the Israeli companies hoping to participate, the consensus was that improved relations in the Gulf provides immense opportunities.
For Sharon Biton, vice president of marketing at IAI, the show provides the opportunity to be part of a market hub. “We understand that this is an evolving market which nowadays requires not just being cutting-edge and at the right price, but we talk about joint ventures.”
In other words, Israeli firms are looking forward to signing memorandums of understanding and creating partnerships, much like they have done elsewhere, like in India.
Ran Gozali, Rafael’s executive vice president, said he plans to bring several capabilities featuring the company’s expertise to IDEX. These include the defense giant’s latest artificial intelligence-driven technology, remote control weapon stations and the Spike family of missiles, among other new solutions for the multidimensional battlefield.
“We believe that the capabilities and portfolio we developed here throughout the years and unique technology meets very well the requirements of the UAE in various aspects,” Gozali said. “We understood five years ago that this AI revolution will change everything in the battlefield, and we invested a lot of research and development in key technologies around artificial intelligence, multiple sensors for the next-generation battlefield, multispectral for seekers and payloads to connect a variety of data sources leveraging advanced computer vision algorithms driven by neural networks.”
Rafael expects to showcase how it can connect these capabilities via AI and situational awareness during NAVDEX, a naval-focused trade show that will run concurrently to IDEX, Gozali said. “The company sees potential for business, partnerships and industrial cooperation. We are excited about being in UAE, we see it as strategic partnership.”
For Israel, a key partner of the U.S., attending IDEX in the wake of renewed diplomatic relations is auspicious, particular as Saudi Arabia deals with drone threats from Iran and Yemen; the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie warns about unmanned aerial threats; and the U.S. pauses an arms deal to the UAE.
“This year is special and interesting because of the normalization process. This is the first time Israel can participate with the flag,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Guzansky noted that Israeli firms previously worked “with different names and companies — some would be registered elsewhere, such as in Europe. They didn’t participate directly.”
For example, Bird Aerosystems, which provides products to protect critical assets, said it did business in the Gulf and the Middle East but not directly as an Israeli company, instead working through third parties. Leaders called the current peace a significant breakthrough, and the company can now openly present its whole portfolio.
By contrast, some of Israel’s smaller companies — those that are not historically linked to the government the way IAI and Rafael are — and those seeking to break into new markets are particularly excited about IDEX. Smart Shooter, which makes fire control systems for small arms, is presenting technology that has been used by the U.S. Army, among other militaries.
“After almost a year without exhibitions over the globe, this is the first, and we are ready to see and meet and introduce our system,” said Abraham Mazor, the company’s vice president. “It is important to have it in the UAE.”
Smart Shooter’s technology allows soldiers with a rifle to choose a target and engage only that target rather than mistakenly shooting at nearby areas and potentially harming civilians. It has also been developed for use against small drones.
“We treat the UAE as a friendly country, and once it is on the list of friendly countries we are very proud to sell and deploy systems to these countries. But we need government approval, and we need to apply for that,” Mazor said, hinting at the export licenses that Israeli companies will need to expand their businesses in the region.
Not all Israeli companies planning to head to IDEX have revealed the products they will display. IAI said it will have a booth with visual and interactive displays. Bird Aerosystems will present its latest ASIO system for protecting critical assets — a system that combines airborne, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Smart Shooter is expected to bring its Smash 2000 Plus fire control system and Light Remote Controlled Weapon Station. Representatives from drone-maker Aeronautics said it will bring its latest version of the Orbiter 4 UAV and Orbiter 1K loitering munition. Its line of drones provides a range of capabilities for border protection and reconnaissance.
Leaders at UVision, an Israeli maker of loitering munitions, said the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE opens a significant market for the company, particularly with its Hero family of loitering munitions.
Similarly, leaders at SK Group, which sells to the Israel Defense Forces and 50 countries, said its businesses will showcase capabilities for small arms and homeland security. In addition, Israel Shipyards will also participate in NAVDEX.
IMCO Group, a company established in 1974 that integrates systems for Israeli tanks and defense giants, sees IDEX as a chance to illustrate its transformation from a veteran company in the shadows to one that can directly pitch products to potential users, according to Eitan Zait, the company’s chief executive.
“The market is huge internationally,” Zait said. “It is a very attractive market because customers over there [in the UAE] have a keen understanding of what they want and the threat they are facing, and the level of professionalism is very high, and so we assume that the solution we offer will be received positively.”
Seth J. Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has covered conflict in the Mideast since 2010 for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.