x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Guns and poses

Feature Neil Vorano finds plenty to be overawed by at this week's International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi but fails to engage his intended target.

Walking around the cavernous halls of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, through row upon row of pistols, missiles, body armour, tanks and helicopters, it was easy to feel somewhat out of sorts; perhaps even a bit surreal. Men in various ornamental uniforms walked around scanning the displays with eyes glazed as if they were shopping for groceries at Spinneys. And for as far as you could see, huge, jaw-dropping vehicles, the type you only see on the TV news, loomed larger than life in front of passers-by. And I realised halfway through the hall that this show is meant for generals and ministers, but its ideal audience is any 12-year-old boy. The same boy that lives inside of me.

It was all a bit overwhelming, really. The Humvees and its countless copycats seemed to meld into one vehicle, while the huge tanks, amphibious craft and troop transporters were so imposing it was difficult to take them all in. But there were some vehicles that begged to be noticed more than others. The Sand-X looks like a snowmobile, which is strange in this part of the world until you realise that it's only based on a Ski-Doo, made by Bombardier. But the skis up front are replaced by wheels, and a large radiator is mounted at the front. What was most surprising was that it's assembled right here in Abu Dhabi.

"In the desert, there is nothing else," says Urs Eiselin, from the company selling the vehicle here. "We win all the off-road tests with this machine. Because of the track, we will never get stuck, and we would never get hung up on the top of a dune. It is automatic, and it goes more than 180 kilometres an hour in the sand, on water, on grass, on rocks; all terrain." It's twice the price of a comparable quad bike, but Eiselin says they've already sold almost 400 here. I can see why.

The next object of desire was the Jeep J8, a military version of the regular Jeep found in a showroom. "For three decades," said Lorne Stoddart, commercial manager of Jankel, "a factory in Cairo has been building militarised Jeeps for the Egyptian and Israeli military. Nobody really knows about it, but two years ago Chrysler looked at the product and said 'why don't we pitch this to the rest of the world?'" Chrysler approached Jankel, a company with experience in armoured vehicles, to head up the project.

Based on the extended chassis of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, the J8 comes in various guises, but I'll take the one with the machine guns, thanks. The International MXT, a truck that makes the Humvee look like a compact car, may look familiar to some people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - around 20 of the civilian versions have been sold in the Emirates, while the military-spec version on display sported a very out-of-place, beaten-up Dubai licence plate.

"This is the only [military] one here," said Pat MacArevey, Navistar's vice president of government business. "It's going through summer trials for the UAE military. Four thousand kilometres, Monday to Friday. The way I hear the story, it's the only one out of five that came out of the desert under its own power." Land Rover had its classic Defender on display, a vehicle just as ubiquitous as the Jeep and Humvee in the military sector. Sharing its space was an armoured LR2; if you purchased one, Land Rover could teach you how to drive the heavier vehicle safely. They also offer to discreetly service your vehicle in the confines of your very own garage - just so no one else is the wiser that you drive an armoured truck. Nice.

The Land Rover display was near the British Armed Forces' Supacat, a rugged, tube-framed truck now being used in Iraq. What's unique about this is that the standard, two-axle vehicle can be extended with bolt-on axle modules for more towing capacity and versatility. Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Svinos, a friendly soldier in desert camo who was showing me the Supacat, described it in a thick estuary English accent: "It's a brilliant vehicle. It's very dynamic and so robust. In the terrain we use this in, you don't want anything to break, and this fits the bill." Blimey.

For sheer craziness, it's hard to beat the Boomerang. Especially the one with the aeroplane drone on its roof. It looks more like a desert racer than a military vehicle, but Sam Ludvig, technical adviser, says the mid- engined vehicle is reserved only for special forces and won't be available to the public. Too bad, because he says it rides like the best SUV on the road. It's built in the US, but the company plans to bring production to the UAE next year.

For sheer size, the OshKosh Heavy Equipment Transporter possibly overshadowed everything at the show. In a four-axle, eight-wheel arrangement, the truck weighs 20,208 kilograms on its own, and has a maximum combined weight of truck and payload of 110,404 kg. It's a struggle to even get into the cab. The UAE was well represented in the armoured vehicle segment. Al Jaber Land Systems had a large, V-hulled troop transporter on display. Bin Jabr Group of Abu Dhabi, just a few doors down, had a whole fleet of personnel carriers, radar trucks, and other armoured vehicles.

"Our vehicles are unique," says Mohamed Ahmed, vice president of NIMR military vehicle operations of Bin Jabr. "They are designed here, our research is here. We have some components made in the UAE, but we are assembled in Jordan. But we own the design of the whole vehicle." Bin Jabr currently has contracts with the UAE and Libyan armies, and the company has further plans for development. "We're establishing a facility here in Abu Dhabi for increased capacity," said Ahmed. "In the works are two new models to work on, plus a continuous improvement for our current models." The new factory is planned for 2010.

For those here who want their own armoured car but don't want to get rid of their current vehicle, International Armoured Group in Ras al Khaimah can do something for you. For around Dh200,000, they can convert your sport-utility vehicle or saloon to repel rifle fire and smaller explosions. Originally from Canada, the company opened an office in RAK three years ago and have been undertaking around 40 conversions a year.

It took a day and a half to fully absorb all the vehicles there - and this doesn't even include the boats or aircraft! But despite giving me a dash of childlike awe, I left feeling empty, my original mission incomplete - no one would let me drive a tank. nvorano@thenational.ae