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Dubai Airshow: Security fears 'to boost arms sales'

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Media captionFocus on arms sales at Dubai Airshow

The opening day of the Dubai Airshow was a demonstration of military power.

Fighter aircraft from the US, UK and France dominated the aerial displays, while on the ground many more multi-million-dollar jets and helicopters were on view.

Among the 160 aircraft on display at the Dubai Airshow, it is the sleek, shiny passenger aircraft of Boeing and Airbus which Gulf carriers normally order in their hundreds.

But alongside these are dotted the sharp-nose cones of fighter jets and the drooping rotor blades of the latest attack helicopters.

Inside the exhibition halls, hanging from the roof, are dozens of military drones - unmanned aerial vehicles.

Because Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad already have hundreds of airliners on order, manufacturers of aircraft are putting a greater emphasis on their military hardware.

Boeing has set out on display the largest variety of defence products it has ever brought to Middle East, including its B-1B supersonic bomber. Lockheed Martin is here in force, and has its F-22 fighter, which made its combat debut over Syria last year, doing aerial displays.

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More than 90 US companies are participating in the show, and six American states have their own pavilions. And the support it all is a formidable array of top brass from the US military and Department of Defense.

Demand for weaponry is soaring in the Middle East. Take Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Gulf states.

Last year, it spent $80.7bn (£52.8) on defence - a 17% rise on the year before - according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Patrolling the Gulf

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Gulf states fighting in Yemen to uphold the president's rule against Houthi rebels. It is also arming Syrian rebels and carrying out air strikes on the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Other Gulf states - such as the United Arab Emirates - have also increased military spending, mainly to keep pace with Iran, which has recently acquired a number of new hi-tech weapons from Russia. Defence spending across the Middle East rose by 5.2% last year, according to SIPRI.

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The main beneficiaries of the Middle East's arms build-up are US defence firms. Their sales to Gulf states increased from $7bn in 2007 to $20.5bn in 2013, according to the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Analysts say there is likely to be particular interest at the airshow from Gulf states looking to buy early warning and surveillance aircraft.

Boeing has unveiled its maritime surveillance aircraft, the MSA, and its new P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare plane.

Both could play a role patrolling the Persian Gulf, which separates the Gulf Arab states from Iran.

Boeing is also hoping for large orders for its AH-6 attack helicopter, which becomes operational in 2017. It has already received orders for 24 of them from one, unnamed, Gulf state.

Predator

"I expect to see increases in demand for things like rotorcraft platforms where there's a need to move people and equipment to remote areas, and increases in sales of precision weapons," says Paul Oliver, Boeing's vice-president for Defence, Space and Security in the Middle East.

"And also to see increases in sales of precision weapons. They've been expending weapons in this region because of the conflicts and I see an increase in demand for these."

Perhaps the fastest-growing market in defence is for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones. For the first time, they will be featured in Dubai Airshow's flying displays.

According to analysts at the Teal Group, a US aerospace consultancy, more than $90bn-worth of UAVs could be sold over the next decade.

General Atomics, a US company, has a $200m contract to supply the UAE with missile-firing Predator drones.

Last February, the US government relaxed rules on drone exports. Since then Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, has announced it has been in talks to sell up to 150 of its drones to a variety of states in the Middle East.

Cranfield Aerospace of the UK has developed a cheap and simple-to-operate unarmed reconnaissance drone called Cassius which it is trying to market to Gulf states. It will be represented on the UKTI stall at this week's airshow.

Oil price

"Cassius is not armed with weapons," says the Mark Kelk, business development manager at Cranfield Aerospace. "It is a surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft which can be used to patrol oil installations, oil pipelines and national borders, and which troops in the field can use to see what's over the hill - what they're getting themselves into.

"Whereas the Predator and Reaper drones, which Western military forces use, have to be flown remotely by highly-trained fighter pilots, who are highly-paid and hard to find, UAVs like Cassius are easier to use.

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"They fly themselves. All the operator has to do is to touch a point on a map on the computer screen and it flies to where it's told to go. Someone can be trained to use it after going on a two-day course. So it is cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate."

Cheapness is a key issue. Gulf states may be increasingly worried about their security, but they also have another problem. The price of crude oil has plummeted over the past year or so. That has hit the budget of such states as Saudi Arabia, which relies on oil sales for 90% of state revenues.

Boeing's Paul Oliver says Gulf States are postponing, or scaling down their more ambitious long-term defence projects. "I think a lot of them have tremendous reserves, but right now - I think - they are being very prudent.

"They don't know how long this thing [low oil prices] will go on, and they're being very diligent in their acquisitions."

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