It is hard to recall a time when there wasn’t a difficult situation in the Middle East. Whether it is tension between certain countries in the region and the West, civil unrest, or insurgencies and terrorism – often fuelled by religious extremism – the region has faced many challenges and continues to do so. However, the situation today is arguably more volatile than it has been for many years.

Syria continues to be a flashpoint, with international as well as regional parties still with vested interests there. Turkey, under the consolidated leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is flexing its muscles in ways not witnessed for some time.

Civil war in Yemen is in fact nothing of the sort; instead, it is a proxy regional conflict that is pushing long-time foes closer to a miscalculation, while the death of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is testament to the rising tension in the region, as well as the daring of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and his leadership.

In early November, stoking tension still further, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi fired a warning shot towards Iran, telling Youm7, a pro-government newspaper, Arab states and their people that they should be aware of the danger the region faces today.

He added, “We stand by our brothers in the Gulf wholeheartedly and if Gulf security is directly threatened by anyone, the Egyptian people, even before their leadership, will not accept that and will mobilise forces to protect their brethren.”

Instability in the Middle East

President Trump has also had a hand to play in the current situation, withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal (JPCOA) and imposing some of the toughest sanctions on the country for many years. This decision, while not backed by many of the US’s usual allies, brings with it further jeopardy to an already tense part of the world. It is no secret that President Trump’s ultimate desire is to at the very least make it difficult for the Iranian regime to continue in its current guise. It could even be argued that the goal is to starve it of power, literally.

The risk here, however, as President Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged in his interview with Youm7, is that instability in Iran – or in any other country in the Middle East – is a threat to the whole region. There have been increasing signs of discontent in Iran, something not to be taken lightly given the usual fear of punishment that means Iranians often remain quiet, despite their true feelings about how the country is governed.

Qatar too is facing Saudi-led isolation, the result of long-standing differences, but more recently Qatar’s continuing diplomatic relationship with Tehran. A land, air and sea embargo against the Gulf state remains in place, imposed jointly by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain.

Together, these situations constitute an unprecedented challenge for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). So much so that even the US – often an ally of the Council and the Saudi Kingdom – criticised it for what Defense Secretary James Mattis called failure to “adhere to international norms and the rule of law”. He was speaking specifically of the killing of Khashoggi and said such action undermined stability in the region at a time when stability was needed most, and called on the GCC to “debate” in order to resolve the issues it faced.

Being critical of Saudi Arabia, and the wider GCC, isn’t something that comes easy to the US, and even the UK. Large amounts of trade are done with the nations, particularly that of defence equipment and services. President Trump has, for his part, struggled to walk that line, recently saying he puts the US first, suggesting that even such a killing was, if not acceptable, at least tolerated if it meant doing business was still possible.

IDEX and NAVDEX 2018

Against that backdrop, preparations for the 2019 International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) and Naval Defence Exhibition (NAVDEX), which run alongside each other as one event, are in their final stages.

“It is a unique platform to establish and strengthen relationships with government departments, businesses and armed forces throughout the region,” say organisers of what is the only event to showcase new innovation in land, air, and sea defence in the Middle East and North Africa region.

In 2017, 1,235 companies from 57 countries exhibited, across 12 halls housing 39 national pavilions.

Held in Abu Dhabi on 17–21 February 2019, the event has a tough act to follow, having attracted more than 105,000 visits when it was last held in 2017. Then, 1,235 companies from 57 countries exhibited, across 12 halls housing 39 national pavilions. The forthcoming event will be held at Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC) and will comprise indoor exhibition halls, an outdoor demonstration zone, a full conference agenda to be held at the Emirates Palace agenda, and live demonstrations.

ADNEC said, “The two exhibitions will showcase the latest defence developments featuring technology trends from the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence (AI), and the vital role of these technologies in advancing the defence sector and its relevant industries.

“Themed ‘Defence for Security and Safety’, the event will also highlight the UAE’s leading initiatives in achieving digital transformation in line with the country’s Artificial Intelligence Strategy aimed at enhancing government’s performance, and contributing to achieving the goals of UAE Centennial 2071 to become the best country in the world in all fields.”

Humaid Matar Al Dhaheri, group CEO of ADNEC, added, “We look forward to witnessing wide participation of leading manufacturers, defence systems companies, government officials, decision-makers, defence and security leaders and global specialists, as well as major international companies in the coming edition of the exhibition.”

Sustainability, stability and cybersecurity

The outdoor demonstration area has a purpose-built demonstration track, which will play host to the daily displays by exhibiting companies, allowing them to showcase their equipment on land and in water. In addition there will be regular visits from flagship naval vessels.

The conference and its agenda is based on what the organisers say are four key topic areas, each woven into the proceedings across two days. The areas of interest include how to ensure the regional defence industry can be made, and kept, a sustainable one. Within this, particular attention will be paid to offset programmes and how they can help sustain the sector, turning a spotlight on encouraging the development and support of small and midsized businesses. Another point of interest will be ensuring security stability at a time of escalating global and regional threats.

IDEX said: “The return and intensification of geopolitical and military-technological competition in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Indo-Pacific is creating an environment vulnerable to rapid disruptive shifts and, potentially, escalation and miscalculation rooted in broader competitive dynamics and priorities.”

Cybersecurity will also be in the spotlight, and not just the more obvious concerns – espionage and critical infrastructure among them – but also the new age of so-called “fake news” and the challenges it poses to society and governments. There will also be a look at the growing use and capabilities of AI.

The event promises to bring together some of the world’s leading defence players and newest technologies, some of the less known but biggest innovators, and some of leading defence figures from the region and around the world for a week of exciting and engaging events.