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IDEX-21: The view from the only UAE-UK Defence Joint Venture

Having first exhibited at a very different IDEX in 2019, Houbara approached 2021’s iteration, like many, with a degree of unease surrounding COVID-19’s possible impact. Our chief concern was that global restrictions and travel bans would cause many key customers to forego the exhibit, and amidst a national lockdown, the UK Government’s options to support the exhibit would be severely limited. Ultimately the question was, despite the best efforts of organisers to create a safe environment for us to conduct our business, would we realise a worthwhile return on investment with so many unknowns?

Thankfully, the exhibition can now be considered a success and our fears, unlike the IDEX crowds, never really materialised.  Over 62,000 visitors were in attendance this year with 120 international delegations; a sizeable return for an exhibition held amidst a global pandemic. The aisles and walkways around the exhibits were pleasantly full, making the ADNEC ‘social distancing monitors’ the busiest people of all attempting to keep everyone two meters apart!

Prior to IDEX-21, Houbara had not exhibited anywhere for over fourteen months – An eternity in which to not personally connect with customers and industry. Houbara’s CEO, Tim Allen, spoke to ADNEC and summed up our desire to reach out to customers again, saying, “The ability to engage in person, is really of paramount importance – Yes, we’ve adapted and become very proficient with the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams for virtual working, but for us getting back together and collaborating face to face again with our customers is extremely important”.

Whilst it’s true visitor number were (understandably) lower than 2019 levels, overall engagement with our key stakeholders was extremely high; the less frenetic atmosphere allowing us to delve into longer and more meaningful conversations with faces old and new.  Noticeably, there was a genuine desire amongst industry to collaborate; perhaps as an acceptance of the realities of doing business in the cash-strapped, post-covid recovery phase, or a nod to the fact that the UAE has some enduring and pressing defence requirements which no single company can adequately fulfil in isolation. In all, it was a marked difference from the often adversarial or protectionist nature of the industry at such exhibits.

This sense of collaboration was driven by local entities such as the UAE’s new defence industry champion EDGE, and Research & Development body, Tawazun, both seeking cooperation and bilateral investment in many areas seen as traditional UK strengths such as defence specific research and development, test and evaluation, robotic systems integration and synthetic environment training and rehearsal. With UAE-UK relationships on a cautious upward trend, particularly in defence cooperation, opportunities from IDEX and beyond will undoubtedly begin appearing for UK companies to support the UAE’s agenda in these areas.

With 51% of Houbara’s ownership being Emirati and 49% belonging to a prime UK defence contractor in QinetiQ, support from ‘UK PLC’ and the UK Government remains critical to the impact and long-term success of companies such as Houbara. After much uncertainty following the announcement of the UK’s latest national lockdown in early 2021, we were delighted to learn that a UK delegation led by Rt. Hon Lord Lister (PM’s Special Envoy – Gulf) and Air Marshal Martin Sampson (Defence Special Advisor Middle East – DSAME) would make the trip to support UK engagement with senior Emirati delegations.  With other international delegations unable to attend due to Covid-19, this was a good indicator of the UK’s commitment to the UAE.

During the exhibition, Houbara and the QinetiQ Group were well positioned on the UK DSE Pavilion, ably assisted by the UK Embassy and ADS Group who must be congratulated for their work in generating as much exposure as possible for UK interests despite challenging conditions. Key to our own agenda was demonstrating our commitment to supporting the UAE’s defence industrial growth as the only UK-UAE Defence Joint Venture in the UAE.  Visitors to our stand would have been woven a picture of how both Emirati and British investment is working to localise and combine QinetiQ’s scientific and engineering expertise with combat-proven systems for the benefit of the UAE’s Armed Forces.

At the forefront of our UK backed offering was our Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) business. This capability ranges from providing realistic threat representation – air, land and maritime target systems which accurately mimic adversaries’ platforms, signature characteristics and weapons, to both providing market-leading EOD robotic systems and integration and experimentation support for customers wishing to integrate aspects of autonomy into their organisations. The latter is seen as a key UK differentiator and a strong offering to allied nations, with the hard-won experience gained by the UK industry from previous RAS experimentation programmes such as the British Army’s Autonomous Warfighting Experiment and Future Commando Force serials.

IDEX-21 has re-started the events industry in the UAE defence sector. For the UK and Houbara, all focus must now turn to the next event in a busy year and carrying forward the momentum gained at IDEX-21. Up next is London’s DSEI in September, at which the UAE will have a major presence under the Emirates Defence Companies Council (EDCC) and then back to the UAE again for the Dubai Airshow in November.