Saudi Arabia’s World Defense Show (WDS) provided a fresh insight into the nation’s ambitious Vision 2030 activity, and highlighted the desire of industry from around the globe to support the effort.
Staged near Riyadh from 4-8 February, the show closed after 61 orders worth a combined SAR 26 billion ($6.9 billion) had been finalised, the nation’s General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) says, without detailing the business concluded.
“Throughout the duration of the show, 73 MoU [memorandum of understanding] agreements were inked, of which 17 were offset agreements, highlighting the event’s role as a pivotal platform for global defence collaboration and innovation,” it says.
In one of the few disclosed deals, Lockheed Martin signed an agreement with Saudi subcontractors to supply equipment used in its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system – but aviation-related advances remained low key.
Leonardo signed an MoU with GAMI and the Saudi Ministry of Investment “with the intention to discuss, develop and evaluate a range of investment and collaboration opportunities in the defence and aerospace sector”, the company announced on the show’s opening day.
Potential focus areas include “the space industry, airframe MRO, localisation of electronic warfare systems and radars, and assembly of helicopters”, says Leonardo. The airframer promoted products including its C-27J tactical transport and maritime patrol derivative, and AW159 Wildcat helicopter at the event.
“This MoU also offers the parties a focus on specialised areas of collaboration in both combat air and cross-domain integration fields,” the European company says. “These could include uncrewed systems, integrated sensors, digital technologies, industrialisation processes and human capital development.”
Other MoU signatories included Honeywell and Turkish Aerospace, with the latter’s exhibit having featured models of developmental products including the Kaan next-generation fighter and T625 helicopter.
The second biennial WDS event drew 773 exhibitors from 76 countries and attracted 106,000 visitors, GAMI says. This attendance included 441 official delegations from 116 countries, it adds.
“We are deeply gratified by the global defence community’s keen interest in Saudi Arabia as a major player in the defence industries sector,” says GAMI governor Ahmad Al-Ohali. “World Defense Show 2024 has effectively connected industry leaders and innovators from across the globe, showcasing our nation’s growing influence and capabilities,” he adds.
Riyadh’s Vision 2030 programme seeks to boost its domestic industrial capabilities and localise at least 50% of its defence expenditure by the end of the decade, from 13.6% at the end of 2022, its most recently disclosed figure. This poses a challenge both for the nation and international companies pursuing opportunities to equip its military with advanced equipment such as fighter aircraft.
BAE Systems, Boeing and Dassault Aviation promoted their Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15EX and Rafale products, with the UK government-led Typhoon bid believed to be in pole position for a 54-aircraft need. However, the sensitive nature around discussions with Riyadh meant only Boeing spoke openly about its promotional efforts.
While BAE and Boeing have decades-long relationships with Saudi industry, the Vision 2030 target requires them to go further than before, for example via establishing local final assembly of advanced fighters.
“Our commitment to ‘Saudiisation’, on working with the [local] industry, was something that we were doing already,” says Torbjorn Sjogren, Boeing’s vice-president and general manager services. “Those expectations are more demanding than they have been in the past. We will continue to evolve, and get better.”
The Royal Saudi Air Force’s recently completed introduction of BAE Hawk 165 advanced jet trainers included the in-country assembly of kits supplied from the UK.
Meanwhile, the WDS event also saw a major presence by Chinese and Russian industry, with Beijing committing its August 1st aerobatic display team to participate in the daily flying display. Moscow’s presence included models of products including the in-development Sukhoi Su-75 Checkmate, and a static-area appearance by the export-available Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A transport.
Riyadh’s desire to strengthen its domestic industry and become a more prominent player in the defence sector means that the next instalment of WDS in 2026 will see more activity and deals concluded as its self-imposed 2030 deadline draws ever closer.