Another two years gone by, another edition of IDEX I have watched from the outside, like a would-be party crasher: full of grand visions of what it would be like to get in; held back by nerves and the lack of an invite. Ever since reading Robert Fisk’s account of his visit to IDEX 2001, I’ve been harbouring an intense curiosity regarding what goes on at this biennial show of global defense gadgetry.
Even for someone who did not qualify as a 'bona fide member of the defense industry' and therefore could never get accreditation, the days leading up to IDEX were full of ominous signs and commotions: banners and posters appeared all over the place (although it was not clear why there would be this much outdoor advertising for an event that is closed to the public); suddenly an array of battle ships from various parts of the world was docking at Mena Zayed; Khaleej Al Arabi was closed for weapons demonstrations; a number of hotels ramped up security to include car inspections and bag-checks.
As in 2009 and 2011, I obsessed over the news coverage of the event and grilled people who went about their experiences. This year, there were reports about bulletproof kanduras and the signing of 55 contracts worth Dh 14 billion for the UAE Armed Forces. There was talk of medal-laden generals on ballistic shopping sprees, tall blondes 'manning' major para-statal exhibition booths and school children on class outings. As usual, my imagination was tickled and I pictured a fairground scene in which top brass, leggy models and excitable students queued up for rides involving tanks, fighter jets and drones (or UAVs, if you prefer) in a super-sized, weaponised version of bumper cars.
Such mental images betray a certain tendency, promoted by the organisers and the industry at large, to trivialise or downplay the violent subject matter of arms fairs such as IDEX. This is especially evident in the linguistics of the weapons trade, a central bone of contention for Fisk. Here is his indignant riff on the subject:
“And what language can encompass science and death and capital gains on such a scale? For there is, as I discover in Abu Dhabi, a frightening correlation between linguistics and guns, between grammar and rockets. It's all about words...
The Russians are the mildest in their language. "You will feel protected by our smart weapons' shield," promises Russia's KEP Instrument Design Bureau.
Uralvagoncavod's latest T-90 tank - a descendant of the old Warsaw pact T-55 clunkers - is advertised as "the Best." The State Enterprise Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant's anti-aircraft missiles give an "awesome punch" to their buyers.
The British are smoother. Vickers Defence Systems are trying to flog the new Challenger 2E, "optimised to represent the best balance of fightability, firepower and mobility ... its ability to deliver combat effectiveness has been proven."
Australian Defence Industries are selling a "live fire defence training system" which includes "a ruggedised portable unit." This is taken to the battlefield so that soldiers can practise shooting computerised human beings in between killing real ones.
The Italians like their verbal trumpets. Beretta firearms provides "quality without compromise ... experience, innovation, respect for tradition ... the Beretta tradition of excellence."
Finland's Sako 75 hunting-gun manufacturers boast that their designers were asked a simple question. "What would you do if given the resources to design the rifle of your dreams, the new ultimate rifle for the new millennium?"
"Excellence" crops up again and again. Oshkosh of Wilmington manufactures military trucks with "a tradition of excellence."
Then comes Boeing's Apache Longbow attack helicopter. "It's easy to talk about performance," their ad runs. "Only Apache Longbow delivers."
The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company is among the few to let the cat out of the bag. "True respect," their advertising brags, "can only be earned by making superior weapons systems. Only by owning them." After a while I feel sick. There is something infinitely sad and impotent about the frightful language of the merchants of death, their circumlocutions and macho words balanced by the qualities the weapons are designed to eliminate, their admission that guns mean power turning into the final definition of "excellence."
The glossy pages pile up on my floor. It's a linguistic journey into a fantasy world. Half the words used by the arms sellers - protection, reliability, optimisation, excellence, respect, trust, timelessness, perfection - hint at human goodness, even the achievements of the spirit.
The other half - punch, gutsy, performance, experience, potency, fightability - are words of naked aggression, a hopelessly infantile male sexuality aiming to prove that might is right.
While Fisk's report was remarkable for his terse pacifist's exasperation, there were other media stories, which remained relevant long after publication. Coverage highlights of recent years included Monocle's take on IDEX 2009, which, in a completely different vein than Fisk, gave a sober, business-oriented insight into the financial and strategic considerations underpinning the event, and The Guardian's recap of IDEX 2011, which explored the significance of the event in the context of ongoing popular uprisings across the Arab world. Compared to 2011, reporting on this year's event seemed more muted and a little toothless. For example, Al Jazeera dedicated an episode of Inside Story to IDEX 2013 and the current state of the global arms trade, which focused on the economic, rather than political aspects of the arms trade.
While reports filed by correspondents of leading news organisations were essential to feeding my IDEX obsession, there was nothing like Twitter (#IDEX) and user-generated content like this YouTube clip of UAE armed forces demonstrations at IDEX 2013 to keep up with what was happening at the event day to day. Once again, I've been suffering from IDEX envy, another bout of which awaits in 2015, when the next edition comes around. Wether I'll still be here to ogle it from up close is another question.