The UAE’s drive to join the international armoured vehicle market

9 April 2012 (Last Updated April 9th, 2012 18:30)

Formerly a major importer of armoured vehicles, the United Arab Emirates has made great strides in domestic production. Berenice Baker talks to Abu Dhabi-based manufacturer Nimr Automotive about its ambitions to join the giants which dominate the sector and sell on the international stage.

The UAE’s drive to join the international armoured vehicle market

At the International Armoured Vehicles (IAV) trade fair in Farnborough, UK, earlier in 2012, familiar armoured fighting vehicles, troop carriers and military trucks from the likes of Nexter, Oshkosh, Renault, Ruag, Rheinmetall, ST Kinetics and Thales jostled for position in the main hall. But a striking newcomer took pride of place in the entrance way - the chiselled, angular frame of the 6x6 armoured patrol vehicle from Abu Dhabi manufacturer Nimr Automotive.

Nimr is the specialist automotive subsidiary of Tawazun Holding, a strategic investment firm focused on the long-term development of Abu Dhabi's industrial manufacturing and technology capabilities, with a specific focus on the defence sector. Nimr is notably the first UAE company to exhibit at IAV, even going so far as to sponsor this year's exhibition.

Tawazun blazes trail for blossoming UAE defence market

"Nimr anticipated its vehicles would pique the interest of potential European customers at the UK IAV exhibition."

Tawazun was established in 2007, with a portfolio of 12 divisions which produce an astounding range of military equipment, from pistols to rifles, small and large calibre munitions, unmanned systems and military vehicles. The company became a majority shareholder in Nimr, previously owned by an Emirati investor, in late 2010.

Nimr manufactures 4x4 and 6x6 military vehicles in a number of configurations for a wide variety of applications. The 4x4 range includes single cabins, double cabins, full station wagons, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and anti-tank defence vehicles.

The 6x6 comes in three chassis configurations, with a short, medium or long wheelbase, and is offered in a similar variety of variation models, from single cabins all the way to heavy cargo carriers. The vehicles are already widely deployed within the UAE Armed Forces, and orders are flowing in.

Adapting to a variety of conditions - both political and environmental

Mohamed Musabah Al Mazrouei, acting general manager at Nimr Automotive, said: "The Union Defence Force has more than 500 vehicles in mixed 4x4 and 6x6 variants, and we have two contracts with the armed forces, one is for 1,000 vehicles, the other is for 700 vehicles. Just last month we got another contract from the Ministry of the Interior, which is a separate entity, for 200 more vehicles."

Nimr has yet to make an overseas sale, but is aiming to market the vehicles to other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, as well as looking further afield to Europe and beyond. With this aim in mind, it is preparing its vehicles for the very different conditions they could face outside of the desert environment.

"We test the vehicles every summer here in the UAE, when it's about 50 degrees," said Al Mazrouei.

"We also took the 6x6 vehicle to Millbrook Proving Grounds [in the UK] in February for the first time and it performed excellently in the mud. I met a couple of senior staff from the MoD and they were amazed by the vehicle."

Nimr anticipated its vehicles would pique the interest of potential European customers at the UK IAV exhibition, but they unexpectedly also attracted the attention of visitors from further afield, including from the Far East and the Americas.

Al Mazrouei added that Nimr's unique business model will make its vehicles attractive to a range of clients. "The way we operate as an OEM is to go to a customer with a blank sheet of paper and ask them for their requirements," he explained.

"As we use all our own vehicle components, including the chassis, suspension and drive, we have the flexibility to design whatever kind of vehicle a customer wants and operate our own small-scale R&D facilities to meet these."

What makes UAE military vehicles attractive on the world stage?

Another factor set to make Nimr armoured vehicles more attractive on the world stage is a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which the company signed with DRS Technologies in February 2012, to market its vehicles with a suite of onboard electronics. These include 360 degree tactical cameras, with Systematic's SitaWare frontline C2 / situational awareness software, tactical communication systems and vehicle health management.

"Tawazun was established in 2007, with a portfolio of 12 divisions which produce an astounding range of military equipment."

Al Mazrouei said that Nimr vehicles also offer a highly competitive power to payload ratio, with its 4x4 command vehicle soft skin variation able to carry a payload of three tons and reach speeds of 135 to 140kph, with a 300hp engine.

Nimr believes its history of developing solutions for the UAE Armed Forces, combined with the current worldwide economic downturn, makes this an ideal time to reach out to new markets.

"In the past 35 to 40 years, the UAE was known for being a heavy procurer of military equipment, they were purchasing the latest and most advanced technologies in the world," said Al Mazrouei.

"That gave our armed forces the technical knowledge from using this equipment and established a great relationship with other countries to start manufacturing these products."

Another trigger is that the UAE economy is highly oil-dependent and the government is now looking to diversify, so a greater proportion of the economy stems from manufacturing. It has brought in initiatives to decrease the dependence on foreign imports. As a result of the knowledge gained from the armed force's use of the latest technology, the defence industry, including Nimr, was approached to be part of this process.

"We can combine good quality defence equipment with international knowledge, put that in a product and then send it out on the international market, raising the bar for military equipment," argued Al Mazrouei.

Al Mazrouei believes UAE manufacturers operate in direct competition with manufacturers from emerging economies with a robust defence budget, especially the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations.

"These countries have their own vehicle requirements, they manufacture themselves and are very competitive," said Al Mazrouei.

"Nonetheless, even though they have an advantage in this market, I personally think Nimr will do well because it's a proven platform that combines high mobility with a large payload for its class of vehicles."

Nimr: a year of expectancy

"Nimr is notably the first UAE company to exhibit at IAV, even going so far as to sponsor this year's exhibition."

Nimr has yet to publish company results due to a period of expansion to meet demand, but this in itself is indicative of the company's success. The company is building a dedicated 25,000 square metre facility for armoured vehicle production in the sprawling Tawazun Industrial Park, located between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"This facility will take about 14 months to finish, but the customers do not want to wait, so we have set up a temporary 10,000 square metre facility to meet the urgent demand," explained Al Mazrouei. "We will look at our results once we have reached full capacity."

Nimr will be back on home territory when the International Armoured Vehicles exhibition arrives in Abu Dhabi in May 2012.

With further orders likely and an ever-expanding international profile, rather than being a quirky newcomer, Nimr can fully expect to be increasingly familiar on the world stage by the time next year's trade fair season rolls around.