Saudi Arabia Projects Potential As Defence Hub, Woos Global Bigwigs

RIYADH: The first World Defense Show on the outskirts of Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh that kicked off on Monday has made an impressive start, attracting not only defence majors from across the globe but also generating interest amongst defence manufacturers for a possible arrangement to undertake joint ventures or localisation of defence equipment in the Kingdom.

Founded by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI), the World Defense Show has turned out to be an integrated and future-focused defence event that showcased the latest technological developments from around the globe and demonstrated defence interoperability across all domains. The centrepiece of the custom-built event venue is the 2.7-km-long and 45-metre-wide aircraft runway with a dedicated control tower and an interactive command and control centre showcasing the event theme of interoperability.

After spending two days at the impressive venue, located an hour’s drive outside Riyadh, it is clear that the Saudi leadership is determined to change the image of the country as the largest importer of arms in the world. Many of Saudi Arabia’s own entrepreneurs, innovators and manufacturers have a pride of place at the exhibition. They actively sought out creators of new technology, especially in drones and counter-drone systems, ISR (Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) domain and in the encrypted communications field. Saudi Arabia has been among the top five or six military spenders in the world although as a percentage of budget, the Kingdom at nearly 8 per cent of the GDP spent on the military ranks higher than most countries. India, it must be pointed out, spends a meagre 2.9 per cent (including pensions) of its GDP on defence.

Reflecting Saudi Arabia’s commitment to defence industry growth, the Saudi pavilion at the show featured wide participation of government, military and business entities. Partners included representatives from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of National Guard, Presidency of State Security and a number of government entities in the sector. It included strategic partner Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), together showcasing how the Kingdom is unlocking billion-dollar opportunities for global firms amid a drive to localize 50% of its military expenditure under national Vision 2030 objectives.

The success of the show can also be gauged by the fact that by the second day, the exhibition witnessed the signing of 22 industrial partnerships with domestic and international defense companies worth $2.13 billion, according to GAMI, which is also the regulator of the Kingdom’s defense sector. GAMI said that the deals cover a broad range of activities, including the direct purchase of military systems, the building of production lines, knowledge transfer and training and the localisation of technologies and services.

Reforms in defence are part of the larger and much more ambitious Vision 2030 launched by the Kingdom in 2016. In six years, the Saudi leadership is systematically implementing the vision. Invest Saudi, a flagship organisation that actively seeks foreign collaboration, funding and offers a single-widow platform for potential partners had a big presence at the defence exhibition. Its executives were at hand to explain to potential investors how they could get land, electricity, water and other facilities, at what cost and in which time frame once they decided to partner or establish wholly-owned enterprises. Industry leaders, exhibitors and visitors have already been issued a one-year, free and multi-entry visa to revisit the Kingdom for follow up visits, many participants said.

Like India’s Make in India and Atmanirbhar campaign in defence, Saudi Arabia’s quest for localisation in defence has attracted all the prominent defence majors—from Lockheed Martin to Boeing, from Raytheon to General Dynamics. Chinese and South Korean pavilions as well as the presence of the Pakistan’s Defence Export Promotion Organisation stood out in stark contrast to India’s official representation although private companies such as the Tata Advanced Systems Ltd, MKU, SMPP, Rashtriya Metals did put up stalls while executives from other companies such as Zen Technologies, L&T Defence and Bharat Forge were at the show to explore future potential in the Kingdom.