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The Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi this week holds its International Defense Exhibition, and the number of arms deals is expected to increase dramatically. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia will be on a buying spree, fueled in part - say analysts - by fears about the growing influence in the region of Iran.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Abu Dhabi.
PEYER KENYON: More than 850 manufacturers of everything from microsurveillance cameras to massive battleships are here hawking their wares. And they're drawing interest from as many as 90 official delegations, including Gulf states driven to come here by two factors: treasuries bulging with petroleum wealth, and fear that Iran's interventionist policies won't end with Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Analysts say it's not clear that many of the high-tech weapons purchased this week will ever need to be used. But what is certain is that at this point in the 21st century, death and destruction are still very big business.
(Soundbite of rockets launching, explosions)
Unidentified Man: On the 360-degree battlefield, the best defense is a precise and powerful offense.
KENYON: With Iran promising more military exercises and the U.S. deploying at least two aircraft carriers to the region, analyst Mustafa Alani at the Gulf Research Center says leaders here are understandably nervous.
Dr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Analyst, Gulf Research Center): The emphasis now is on air force capability and naval capability. Now in the region, we're facing major problems from the situation in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian interventionist policy. Basically, we are already in a major destabilization of the region. And these are major factor, which encourages these states to seek some sort of protection.
KENYON: Inside and outside of the sprawling Abu Dhabi exhibition center, row upon gleaming row of helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles stand next to weapons that promised to shoot them down or blow them up.
In the Russian pavilion, one company advertises 1,200-pound cluster bombs, and another offers improved armor-piercing ammunition. Just around the corner, a third vendor sells upgraded armor for military vehicles.
In the American section, Jim Hall of AAI Advanced Technology says he's got just the thing for country's looking to protect, say, valuable oil facilities: an unmanned surveillance boat for round-the-clock patrols.
Unmanned vessels had been around since the Vietnam War, Hall says. But this one goes faster, can stay out longer, and can launch an unmanned aircraft from its deck.
Mr. JIM HALL (Chairman, AAI): This never gets tired, never needs a break, never misses anything. It also has, of course, no risk of human life being lost. We haven't taken the step to arm this yet. People are a little nervous about having a robot with a trigger on it. But, of course, it can be done.
(Soundbite of boat engine)
KENYON: In fact, unmanned vehicles and robots were a prominent theme at this year's exhibition.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
Mr. JAMIL AHAN (President/CEO, Robotic FX): My name is Jamil Ahan(ph). I am president and CEO of Robotic FX. We're right outside the Chicago, Illinois. What you have here, essentially, is the world's first, low-cost tactical surveillance robot. Okay. Whether you'll be an EOD - EOD stands for Explosive Ordinance Disposal, so your bomb techs. We just met with the head of Kuwait's EOD. He is interested in this type of technology.
KENYON: And if the robot gets damaged in the field, these buyers could easily afford a new one. These robots cost 50 to $90,000 a piece. In a sobering reminder of the staggering amounts of money involved in the arms game, that puts them in the category of a disposable product.
The other factor driving much of the spending this week is the perceived need to enhance counterterrorism efforts. Robin Hughes - deputy editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, one of the sponsors of the exhibition - says that means better surveillance, earlier warning and the ability to prevent attacks.
Mr. ROBIN HUGHES (Deputy Editor, Jane's Defence Weekly): Border issues, particularly increased terrorist threat, will necessitate a greater investment in border security programs, particularly in places like Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
KENYON: As with any trade fair, the trick is to match the right buyer with the right seller. At one booth, two Southeast Asian military officers listen to a manufacturer sing the phrases of a holographic gun site mounted on a plastic model weapon.
When he paused for breath, one of the officers gently tapped the plastic and said, no. Where can we buy the real guns?
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Abu Dhabi.
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