Flanders poppies blow in the wind of Dubai: Arab nations spend awesome sums on arms - but don't know why

THERE WERE flowers everywhere, as if this was a wedding rather than an arms bazaar. Roses, lilies, chrysanthemums, all potted neatly between the missiles and the wide screens with their action-replays of the Gulf war's supposedly surgical precision bombing.

But the brightest flower to be seen in Dubai was as artificial as it was ironic: the blood- red poppy of Flanders. Did the captains of the British aviation industry, the ambassador and consuls - did the Prince of Wales himself, who wore a poppy in the lapel of his grey suit - understand the paradox?

'In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row/ That mark our place.' Those lines were written in 1915 after the second battle of Ypres, and all last week the same red poppy could be seen dancing on the breasts of men as they admired the latest in 'combat support weapons', the new Hellfire 2 fire-and-forget missile of the Martin Marietta Corporation, South Africa's Rooivalk attack helicopter, the Apache, the Puma, the Harrier, the Lynx, the F-18 and the Mirage 2000. What, one wondered, was the poppy's message here in Dubai?

It was clearly not directed at the Arabs who came here in their thousands to ponder the merits of the new Leclerc tank, the Hornets and the Apaches. Indeed, the very figures already squandered on this technology by the Arab Gulf states are fast approaching the point of obscenity.

This year alone, Kuwait is buying 236 US M1A2 Abrams tanks at a cost of dollars 2bn (pounds 1.3bn). Saudi Arabia is buying dollars 7.5bn worth of British Tornadoes and dollars 3.9bn worth of French frigates, after last year's announcement of an awesome dollars 9bn purchase of US F-15XP fighter jets.

To understand these figures, you need to remember the total Saudi financial support for the Palestinian-Israeli Gaza- Jericho accord: a mere dollars 100m. The United Arab Emirates, which hosted last week's arms show and is buying dollars 3.5bn worth of of Leclerc tanks this year, has pledged just dollars 25m to the Palestinians. And one could not help suspecting that the West prefers it that way. After all, current sales of weapons to the Middle East - mainly the Arab Gulf states - are running at dollars 46m a day. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, which produced this grim calculation, says that the US sold well over dollars 28bn worth of arms after the Gulf war, of which the Saudis accounted for dollars 17bn.

It is therefore the Gulf conflict - which, like the First World War, was supposed to be another war to end all wars - that has helped us sell all these new weapons to the Arabs. Britain and America are the two largest suppliers of arms to the Middle East; more than half our arms exports go there, and about 40 per cent of France's.

But when you ask the Arab officials why they burn up their money on this technology, their replies are curiously abject. 'I often ask myself this question,' a defence ministry cost analyst from a Gulf emirate admitted last week. 'We buy it because it's there. It's like perfume. If you have the money, you want to buy it. But why don't you ask the men who manufacture these weapons?' And, of course, the arms salesmen reply that if we want to know why the Arabs buy all these weapons, we should ask the Arabs.

As for the morality of it all, there is an American response to such questions. US arms manufacturers conform to the American arms regulations. Weapons are sold only after Congress has an opportunity to oppose the sale.

So what about southern Lebanon, I asked Robert Trice, vice-president and general manager of McDonnell Douglas, whose Apache helicopters were used by the Israelis to attack Lebanese villages last July? How would he reply to the men and women whose children were wounded by missiles fired from the Apaches that his company made? 'I'd tell them to write to the US government,' Mr Trice replied. 'Of course, we hate the idea of innocents being hurt. And believe me, we get letters from that area, too. And that's what we tell the people. They have to write to the American government.'

A visit to the salesmen of the Martin Marietta Corporation proved equally informative. Yes, it had heard that the Israelis had used one of their Hellfire missiles to assassinate Abbas Moussawi, the Hizbollah leader, killed with his wife and five-year old son while driving his armoured limousine in February last year.

Would that have been the new Hellfire 2 missile, I asked? 'No, the Israelis only have the Hellfire 1C. It would have been a Hellfire 1C that killed them. We're not political in this. We manufacture and sell weapons according to the law.'

So what, I asked, would the Moussawi family have known at the moment of their deaths in the Hizbollah leader's car? 'I don't think they would have known a thing. The missile is very fast. It atomises everything inside a vehicle. There would be nothing left.'

It all seemed so far away at Dubai where the atmosphere of the air show - civilian as well as military - and arms bazaar were like a race-track meeting, complete with hostesses. 'We are just part of the decoration,' a mini-skirted Nepalese girl said glumly behind the royal pavilion.

Or like the crystal Austrian chandeliers hanging in the royal tent, erected inside Dubai airport's largest hangar. Like the fine, well-chilled French Burgundy. Like the limousines which brought the Saudis in their gold-fringed gowns. Like the silver salvers upon which black-tied waiters offered French chocolates to the Arabs of the Gulf.

No one would mention the fact that, Iran and Iraq aside, the Arab gulf sheikhdoms share a mutual suspicion of each other that can only be fed by the appetite for weapons displayed at Dubai last week.

(Photograph omitted)

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