“We’re staying away from Gaza”: Palpable silence at the Dubai Air Show

by | Nov 22, 2023 | English

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As Israel-Hamas war rages, officials and exhibitors steered clear of the topic.

DUBAI, UAE—Under the screams of Russian, Chinese, and American warplanes vying for attention above the Dubai Air Show tarmac, the silence on the Israel-Hamas war was deafening.

As exhibitors paraded a host of weapons and aircraft at the Middle East’s largest air show, the only comment on the war blazing in the region’s western edge was no comment or a tactful evasion. But even behind the scenes, away from reporters, industry officials said the subject was avoided like an awkward “elephant in the room.”

“We’re staying away from Gaza,” one defense industry leader told Defense One.

In fact, defense contractors were staying quiet in general. Amid splashy news of commercial sales, no major defense deals were announced by U.S. companies.

Two major Israeli companies—Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems—left their booths empty on the first day of the show. On the second day, a few representatives manned IAI’s booth, but they wouldn’t comment on the extent of the company’s presence at the show.

There is “sensitivity” surrounding the conflict, said Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, which convenes industry and government officials at international trade shows.

Defense firms also didn’t want to say the wrong thing, fearing they could appear as if they were celebrating or benefiting from war, though executives acknowledge that conflicts around the world boost business.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen with this conflict in the Middle East—if it’s going to expand or how long it’s going to last,” Fanning said.

Pentagon officials were quiet as well. At a pre-show gathering of air power leaders, speakers completely avoided discussing the war. U.S. military leaders in the region were instructed not to speak with members of the media last week, an Air Forces Central Command spokesperson said. The command’s second-in-charge told reporters after his remarks that “they don’t want us going on record with anything here.”

Exhibitors also didn’t want to upset the host country, which is trying to maintain ties with Israel despite anger from Arab countries over the death toll in Gaza, which now totals almost 13,000.

But it was hard not to think about Gaza at the air show, as many of these companies build weapons that are used by Israel. Israel’s air force has used Lockheed-built F-16 fighter jets in its intensive bombing. The IAF also has Boeing-built F-15s and a smaller number of F-35s. But so far, the U.S. hasn’t heard any complaints from defense firms over how their products are being employed.

“I’m not aware of any concerns being expressed by the defense industry,” said Stan Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs. “A lot of the weapons that are in the Israeli industry have been procured over a period of time.”

Israel has been trying to buy more F-15s, but those discussions have slowed since the start of the war. Boeing is giving the country “space,” said Rob Novotny, the company’s director of F-15 business development. “There is a lot of deference right now to Israel given the situation.”

Boeing, whose small-diameter bombs have been sent to Ukraine and Israel, hasn’t decided yet whether it will increase production in light of the new conflict, said Vince Logsdon, VP of global business development at Boeing Defense, Space, & Security. Logsdon said it’s hard to predict the long-term demand for munitions.

“It’s difficult with weapons when you’re looking at scaling up production, because at some point, you may have to scale back down and so that’s a lot harder to do and to try to make a business case for that,” he said.

During the show’s flight demonstrations, Russia showed off its KA-52 attack helicopter, making no apparent mention of its combat use during the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Knights demonstration team also made an appearance. However, Russia’s newest combat jet, the Su-75 Checkmate, which made its international debut here two years ago, was missing from the show. The plane has been pitched as an alternative to the U.S.-made F-35.

Russia, which has strong economic ties with the UAE, had a standalone pavilion outside the exhibition hall. Among the firms represented were several under U.S. sanctions. While Russia didn’t have much to sell at the air show, it is searching for ways to prove that it’s still an international player as sanctions have strained its industrial base and the country’s export market is declining.

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