By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 9:01 PM
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - As Libya's Moammar Gaddafi ordered attacks on his own people this week, thousands of arms sellers from the United States and other countries hawked their aircraft, riot gear and rifles to Middle Eastern buyers at the Persian Gulf's preeminent arms show.
The decisions by Britain and France to suspend weapons sales to Libya and Bahrain, where security forces also fired live ammunition at protesters, did little to dampen the fervor of the vendors packing the sprawling Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center for the biennial convention, known as IDEX.
The business-as-usual, big-ticket fighter jets and armored vehicles on display drew plenty of attention. But interest also appeared to be up this year in less dazzling "nonlethal armaments" of the kind put to overwhelming use recently in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.
A sales representative for a Beijing-based maker of anti-riot gear noted that all her wares were attracting more attention - especially a fire-resistant police uniform.
Condor, a Brazilian company, displayed tear-gas grenades alongside rubber-coated bullets, but was gun-shy about speaking to the media. "I can talk to you about soccer, Rio De Janeiro or Carnival," a company executive said apologetically. "But not this."
Amid all the change sweeping the region, the multibillion-dollar business of arms sales to the Middle East may remain the one constant. The rich Persian Gulf states - particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - are scooping up as much weaponry as they can. Some of it could, in theory, be turned on their own populations. But diplomats and defense industry representatives say the goal is to defend against Iran and to secure energy infrastructure that has become even more valuable with oil topping $100 a barrel.
The potential profit is enormous: The UAE alone is planning to spend $6 billion on defense over the next eight years. The United States sells more than a third of its arms to the Middle East, and increasing numbers of manufacturers want a piece of the sales: This year's arms show is 30 percent larger than the previous one.
But some at the convention worried that the wave of regional uprisings, which has led leaders from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to announce new subsidies to appease disgruntled populations, could shift resources to domestic spending.
"They'll have money to do everything" if oil stays above $100 a barrel, said one U.S. arms contractor with long experience in the region. "But there will still be the political sensitivity of people saying to their governments, 'Even if you can afford it, why are you putting money into airplanes or helicopters? You should be putting it into education.' "
The convention drew an array of VIPs, from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to top generals of Persian Gulf militaries. Few, if any, representatives were to be seen from the North African nations rocked by revolution, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But Jordan, which has had domestic disturbances, sent a huge delegation led by King Abdullah II's brother.
Selling arms might seem inappropriate when weapons are being used to crush civilians. But major rethinking is seen as unlikely in the United States, whose strategic priority remains to help allies protect their oil and defend themselves against Iran.
"Governments change all the time, but the security threats that the new government faces don't change as rapidly," said retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore, a former commander of the Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet who is now president of Lockheed Martin's Middle East division.
At the display mounted by the U.S. firm Meggitt, which specializes in shooting instruction, a Saudi from the national oil company, Aramco, screamed at a reporter to take his picture as he and several colleagues grabbed rifles and took aim during a simulated terrorist attack.
The Meggitt representatives were happy to let them play: Saudi Arabia is expected to spend a quarter of a billion dollars over the next five years on shooting ranges and simulators alone.
They know "they need to increase their anti-terrorist capability" with al-Qaeda in the area, said Stuart Westlake-Toms, Meggitt's regional director. Kuwait also wants the training for its police, he added, and Bahrain made deals, as well.
All of the countries in the region are aware, Westlake-Toms said, "that internal security needs to be improved."