Drone manufacturers target rising Gulf Arab demand

ABU DHABI (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 US 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.

Mr 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.

"I can't be specific but all countries in the Arabian Gulf are talking to us," he said on the sidelines of the biennial International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

At the event, the UAE announced a deal to buy an unspecified number of Predator drones from the privately owned US firm General Atomics in a deal worth 722 million dirhams (S$243.6 million).

Also on Monday, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (Adasi), a subsidiary of state-owned investment firm Tawazun Holding, said it signed an agreement with Boeing for Adasi to "provide training, support and marketing services" for Boeing unmanned aircraft systems in the UAE.

Mr Frank Pace, president at General Atomics Aeronautical, said his firm's sales had risen by about 120 per cent 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 were among several states, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, that asked to buy armed drones but were rebuffed.