ABU DHABI, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Global demand for drone
aircraft is especially strong in Gulf Arab states worried about
regional instability, industry executives said on Monday, as a
big U.S. manufacturer unveiled the first sale of an unarmed
Predator to the Middle East.
Controversy over the legality of attacks by missile-firing
drones will not dampen the volatile region's enthusiasm for the
technology, in part because export curbs mean most equipment
sold will be for use only in reconnaissance, experts say.
Sello Ntsihlele, executive manager for UAVs at Denel
Dynamics, a division of state-owned Denel, South Africa's
biggest maker of defence equipment, told Reuters this was "the
best time" for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sales.
"Demand is growing fast in developing countries, in the
Middle East, the Far East and Africa. The Gulf is critical in
all this," he said on the sidelines of the biennial
International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu
Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"I can't be specific but all countries in the Arabian Gulf
are talking to us," he said, adding that Denel's UAV sales had
risen around 20 percent in the last four years, driven mostly by
the Middle East.
The company had received up to double the number of
inquiries from prospective clients than at the same conference
two years ago, Ntsihlele said.
At IDEX on Monday, the United Arab Emirates announced a deal
to buy an unspecified number of Predator drones from the
privately-owned U.S. firm General Atomics in a deal worth 722
million dirhams ($196.57 million).
Also on Monday, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments
(ADASI), a subsidiary of state-owned investment firm Tawazun
Holding, said it had signed an agreement with Boeing Co
for ADASI to "provide training, support and marketing services"
for Boeing unmanned aircraft systems in the UAE.
Frank Pace, president at General Atomics Aeronautical, said
his firm's sales had risen by about 120 percent over the last
five years, though until now it had not been able to sell to the
Middle East due to tight export restrictions.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are among several states, according
to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, that have asked U.S.
officials to buy armed drones but which have been rebuffed.
Washington says its commitments to the Missile Technology
Control Regime (MTCR), a non-binding international agreement
designed to limit the spread of long-range precision weaponry,
restrict drone exports.
Thomas Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary at the
U.S. State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs,
told reporters at IDEX that "caution" was Washington's point of
departure on drone sales.
"We're not pushing armed systems right now to other
countries. We understand there's a lot of interest in UAVs
internationally ... (but) in terms of armed UAVs I think the
administration is going to take its time to make sure that we
have a policy that we're comfortable with."
General Atomics' export-variant Predator will have no "hard
points" to attach missiles and would be deliberately engineered
to make adding new weaponry impossible, the firm said last year.
Pace said he hoped the company would get approval to sell to
more countries, especially in the Middle Eastern market, where
he saw great potential. "We are talking to all of the Gulf
(Arab) countries," he said.
KEEPING TABS "VERY IMPORTANT"
Sales are growing in the Middle East because having
developed surveillance systems is fast becoming a requirement
for all states, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at
the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"The region is still unstable, there are state actors and
non-state actors that want to cause trouble, and being able to
keep tabs on what's happening is very important."
The oil-rich, sparsely-populated Gulf Arab states are
alarmed at the civil war in Syria, and want to ensure that
popular uprisings in North Africa do not stir dissent at home.
The intentions of regional rival Iran, locked in a dispute
with major powers over its nuclear programme, are a perennial
concern for the Gulf region's hereditary ruling families.
Controversy over the legality of drone strikes would have
little impact on global appetite for UAVs, Karasik said.
"Don't forget the debate over UAVs is concentrated in the
United States. Countries that want that capabililty over here
will make their own decisions," he added.
The U.S. government has dramatically increased its use of
drone aircraft abroad in recent years to target al Qaeda figures
in far-flung places from Pakistan to Yemen. Britain and Israel
have also carried out such attacks, and dozens more states are
believed to possess the technology.
Targeted killings carried out by remotely piloted unmanned
aircraft are controversial because of the risks to nearby
civilians and because of their increasing frequency.
General Atomics' Pace said, however, that he didn't expect
the controversy to have much impact on sales.
Missiles are "not a significant function of the aircraft and
most of the people that are buying (are buying) for ISR and are
going to keep buying," he said, referring to intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance.
The surge in drone use has stirred debate in the United
States about the transparency of lethal strikes and the powers
of the president to order attacks on U.S. citizens overseas. A
2011 strike killed U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a recruiter and
propagandist for al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate.
Pace said unmanned aircraft would have to be used
responsibly, but that ultimately they would help to save lives
compared to some of the older systems.
($1 = 3.6730 UAE dirhams)
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush and Praveen Menon,
Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)