As one of the largest spenders on defence in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become a major player in the regional military sphere in recent years and is now looking in on itself to produce its own ordnance.

With a large defence budget, valued at $23.2bn in 2023 alone, the UAE is open to investing in numerous programmes to bolster its domestic defence industrial base.

Historically, despite this healthy budget, the vast majority of its military acquisitions are sourced from abroad, with the nation ranking as the eighth largest defence importer globally between 2015-19, and the US accounting for 64% of acquisitions, according to a SIPRI report.

So, it is no surprise that the UAE has become one of several nations that have initiated manufacturing domestication initiatives in recent years, including India, with its ongoing ‘Make in India’ campaign launched in 2014.

A new initiative called ‘Make it in the Emirates’, launched in March 2021, describes itself as “an open invitation to industry, investors and innovators to engage with MoIAT [the Emirati Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology]…to fulfil their ambitions of developing, manufacturing and exporting their products from the UAE”.

The defence sector was no exception to this programme, where Emirati defence has since exploded with a range of new programmes.

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One of the companies at the forefront of this initiative is EDGE Group.

Founded in 2019, EDGE Group is a defence technology conglomerate, now comprised of more than 25 subsidiaries, with a portfolio of 160 solutions.

Of these, 78 are fully developed, and 82 are still in development, with coverage of almost all aspects of the market.

Hamad Al Marar, EDGE Group managing director and CEO, said: “Our increasingly important position in the global defence industry would not be possible without the support of the UAE’s leadership. Their vision to create an international hub of advanced defence research and Industry 4.0 manufacturing in the country has supported us in achieving a global footprint in over 50 countries.”

The UAE Air Force Air Defense (AFAD) traditionally receives the largest share of the UAE’s total defence procurement budget, as stated by the International Trade Administration, and in 2021 EDGE was awarded an exclusive performance-based logistics three-year contract to supply the AFAD.

The contract was focused on maintenance, repair and overhaul, and specialised support services, and will be coming to an end in November this year.

This shows the Emirati transition towards internal investment is already well underway and will continue to rebalance its defence acquisitions, as its larger military entities are now sourcing from inside the country on a bigger scale.

More recently, EDGE announced the launch of two Centres of Excellence based in the UAE: the Radar and Electronic Warfare Centre of Excellence, and the Electro Optic Centre of Excellence.

In its words, the move aims to strengthen the group’s solid reputation as a disruptive industry leader, accelerate innovation, drive operational efficiencies, and reinforce EDGE Group’s position as a leading developer and solutions provider in the radar technology, electronic warfare, and electrooptronics markets.

This week, EDGE participated for the first time in the Eurosatory exhibition, the largest international exhibition for land and air defence systems in the world.

On the third day of the exhibition, 19 June 2024, EDGE announced a new cooperation agreement with KNDS, Europe’s leading producer of land defence systems.

Together, the companies aim to design and develop new munitions and defence systems in a groundbreaking new partnership.

Also resulting from the Eurosatory was a new declaration of intent between Thales and EDGE Group subsidiary KATIM, a leader in the development of ultra-secure communications solutions.

The two parties will work in concert for the development, production, and maintenance of airborne and long-range high-frequency radio communications, which will be manufactured domestically in the UAE.

Didier Pagnoux, CEO of KATIM, stated: “This collaboration aligns with our goal of driving innovative secure communication solutions and fully supports the UAE’s ambitious global exports roadmap.”

Additionally, EDGE Group has become an international leader in precision-guided weapons.

EDGE signed $10.3bn worth of contracts to the UAE armed forces for precision-guided missiles alone during the International Defence Exhibition & Conference 2023, covering projects such as the HALCON THUNDER, DESERT STING 25, and ADASI SHADOW systems.

On top of this, EDGE premiered its SkyKnight air defence missile system, the first-ever UAE-designed and manufactured counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar missile system, which was later implemented into Rheinmetall’s Skynex air defence system, further cementing EDGE Group’s presence at the forefront of the precision-guided weapons industry.

EDGE Group has proven itself as an international player in the defence industry by entering European markets, and being a leader in precision guided missiles, thus establishing the UAE as a defence provider and beginning to gradually reduce its historic import-export imbalance.

Another initiative founded to stimulate the UAE’s defence industry was the Emirates Defense Companies Council (EDCC).

Established by the UAE Ministry of Defence and Tawazun Council in 2014 to synchronise the Emirati defence industry, it has now amassed more than 200 member companies and oversees the growth, development, and unity of the industry as a whole.

Earlier in the year, the EDCC signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UAE space agency, reflecting the ‘Make it in the Emirates’ programme’s ideology.

The chair of the EDCC, Mona al Jaber, stated: “This MoU represents a significant step forward in fostering collaboration between the aerospace and defence sectors in the UAE.”

Due to the large amount of defence imports to the UAE historically, and investments in its defence industry, this localisation will naturally reduce imports into the country, however the UAE still maintains a very positive reception to foreign investment.

Resulting of a 2020 legal amendment, private companies are now permitted 100% private ownership of a mainland company, which is up from 49%, as part of this effort to stimulate the Emirati economy as part of Operation 300bn, the overarching scheme consisting in part of the ‘Make it in the Emirates’ initiative.

More restrictions do apply to the defence sector, but defence companies may still obtain ownership permissions after an administrative process.

Overall, it is clear that the UAE intends to become an international player in the defence industry, and with its weighty investments coupled with widespread initiatives to domesticate capabilities, this process is well underway.

Companies such as EDGE Group are gaining international traction as the funds pour in and the solutions pour out, turning the tides on the UAE’s large-scale foreign expenditure in defence acquisitions.

With its cumulative defence budget predicted to reach $157.4bn by the 2029 period, of which 18.1% is earmarked for acquisitions, we can expect more in this direction.