The Paris Air Show in June was notable for the absence of a big US military presence. Defence chiefs and major contractors were hard to spot.
Fast-forward to this weekend and the start of the biennial Dubai Air Show, and it’s a very different story.
A US Navy aircraft carrier off the Dubai coast is hosting a dinner for 800 official delegates from around the world.
US defence firms are out in force. Little expense seems to have been spared to showcase their fighter jets, bombers and other military hardware.
It all illustrates the importance of this week-long festival of deal-making and schmoozing in the Gulf city-state.
For Doug Emslie, group managing of Taurus, which owns the show’s organisers, F&E Aerospace, says it is all part of changes to the aerospace industry’s centre of gravity.
“We are seeing a massive shift in buying power to the Middle East and Asia. It is makes sense that people will come to where the buyers are,” he says.
The ambitious expansion plans of the fast-growing Gulf airlines, led by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, show no signs of slowing.
And with defence budget cuts in Europe and the US being squeezed, arms firms are looking to Middle East states to keep their order books full.
Jean-Bernard Levy, chairman and chief of French defence-electronics group Thales, underlined the changing mood, telling the BBC that simply exporting products from Europe was no longer an option. Thales had to be “local”.
“Thales must be much more emerging-market minded. In order to counter the cuts in European defence spending, Thales must expand internationally into growth markets.” he says.
“Our international growth has been limited due to the lack of local partnerships abroad.
“Thales can no longer simply count on exporting products from Europe and North America. We need to capture growth in emerging markets and this is why events like the Dubai Air Show are important as they help us to increase our focus on developing regional industrial and business partnerships.”
To match the pre-show hype, the Dubai event got off the ground with a number of big orders.
Dubai-based Emirates placed an order for 150 of Boeing’s new 777 mini-jumbos, in a deal valued at $76bn according to list prices.
It also ordered 50 Airbus A380s, the world’s largest passenger plane.
Boeing also saw demand from Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, with the US manufacturer announcing commitments for some 259 of its revamped 777X aircraft, worth roughly $100bn at list prices.
Boeing will also be hoping to finally put any doubts about its troubled 787 Dreamliner behind it.
Etihad has been in talks over a possible order for 30 of the aircraft.
The Abu Dhabi airline has also been talking to Airbus about buying its A350 and A320neo models. And Airbus will be keen to announce further orders for its A380 super-jumbo, which have been slow this year.
Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific and Saudi Arabian Airlines are also expected to be spending big. And Dubai’s fast-growing budget carrier Flydubai has signalled its intention to buy more aircraft.
Barring a last-minute breakdown of negotiations for big orders, Mr Emslie believes the Dubai show could break its 2007 record, which saw the biggest ever package of orders announced: $155bn.
New shows are emerging in Bahrain, and soon, probably, India and even China and Brazil?
End Quote Howard Wheeldon Wheeldon Strategic Advisory
“This week will be pivotal in the history of the show”, he says. “It will be the tipping point that confirms Dubai as the meeting place for the global aerospace industry.”
That could be bad news for the Paris and Farnborough air shows. For decades, these were events where the aerospace industry not just wanted to be seen, but had to be seen.
But long-time air show-goer Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, fears that Dubai’s emergence means the two European events could become little more than networking events.
He says: “There will always be a need for Farnborough and Paris, but I think the emphasis for these shows will be more and more as trade shows as opposed to air shows.
“True, Farnborough is investing more money for the 2014 show, but compared to the likes of Dubai this is tiny. New shows are emerging in Bahrain, and soon, probably, India and even China and Brazil.”
‘Opportunities and expansion’
Mr Emslie says it should be recognised that for Dubai, the event is no mere show. “It is a statement about its future; a showcase for Dubai Inc.”
Dubai itself is not just a big tourist destination, but a major transit hub for people criss-crossing the globe. It’s airport is expected next year to overtake Heathrow as the world’s busiest.
Around 30% of Dubai’s GDP, and 20% of its employment, comes from aviation. But there is still, Mr Emslie says, a “pretty immature supply chain to service the sector”.
And that means opportunities and expansion, he says.
Of the 1,043 exhibitors, more than 266 are UAE-based. Mr Emslie says that the majority of them did not exist two years ago.
Aviation analyst John Strickland points out that Dubai’s gain does not mean Europe’s loss. Orders placed in Dubai mean jobs across Europe for Airbus, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and other firms.
“Given the importance of aerospace manufacturing for jobs and the UK economy, the Dubai Air Show is of key importance,” he says.
Among defence deals on the agenda, the UAE is in the market for up to 60 fighter jets, with the European-made Typhoon said to be in pole position for the contract. An order would create production and maintenance jobs for decades.
Dubai’s emergence certainly underlines fundamental changes in the global aerospace industry. But as Thales’ Mr Levy said, there are huge opportunities for firms prepared to adapt to the new reality.