x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US defence contractors look to increased Gulf exports

Top American arms makers hope more will be done to promote US aerospace and defence technology.

Defence contractors are looking to the new administration to ease their access to Gulf markets.
Defence contractors are looking to the new administration to ease their access to Gulf markets.

Top US exporters to the Gulf are hopeful the Obama administration will do more than his predecessors to promote American aerospace and defence technology. Increased advocacy is being seen as a potential tool to tip the scales in high-stakes competition with European contractors that have taken advantage of strengthened political ties and high-profile visits to the region in recent years from their heads of state.

"We have transitioned through a couple of [White House] administrations that weren't overly supportive and we remain optimistic with respect to the new administration," said Marty Bentrott, the senior vice president of Middle East and Africa sales for Boeing's commercial aeroplanes division. Boeing, the largest of the US firms that exported US$15.7 billion (Dh57.66bn) in goods and services to the Emirates last year, was hopeful of Barack Obama, the US president, "reaching out to key countries in the Middle East and becoming a stronger advocate on business", Mr Bentrott said.

Deep political ties between supplier and purchaser countries can be influential in the cut-throat world of fighter jets, space satellites, missile defence systems and commercial airliners. "Their leadership is more commercially aggressive than ours," explained an official from a US defence contractor working in the region. French efforts to sell the Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter jets to the UAE, for example, are expected to be on the agenda when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, visits Abu Dhabi next month for the opening of a French military base.

Mr Sarkozy has made several trips to the Gulf in the past two years. He signed electricity and nuclear power deals in Qatar during an earlier visit and also forged a "co-operation framework" with the UAE on nuclear power. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, could also visit the Gulf this year, according to the Italian embassy in Abu Dhabi. Airbus and its parent company, EADS, are competing with Boeing to supply fast-growing Gulf airlines with new, long-range, fuel-efficient planes. "There is a very strong advocacy within the European Union on supporting EADS and Airbus," Mr Bentrott said.

Officials from Airbus said their deals were purely commercially driven. "Airbus does not use political lobbying," said Habib Fekih, the president of Airbus Middle East. "Deals between EADS and countries, which include Eurocopter [helicopters] and satellites, could be viewed in a much more political relationship, but as far as Airbus is concerned we have barely used political lobbying." US contractors also hope the new administration will streamline the bureaucratic approval process for sensitive US defence technology. The process, which includes officially announcing the request to Congress and the media, can take many months to be approved, giving European rivals an advantage.

"We are hopeful that the new administration will take a look at American jobs that rely on defence exports and that [Mr Obama] would be willing to streamline the process so that approvals don't take so long," said a defence contractor working in the UAE. Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research at the Institute For Near East and Military Analysis in Dubai, said the US delays had begun to weigh heavily on Arab governments' decision makers.

"They have been trying to diversify the list of countries they purchase weapons and equipment from," he said. "That means moving from the US to Europe, and the main reason is because of the seamlessness of the European process." igale@thenational.ae