No smell of death at Dubai arms bazaar: Robert Fisk saw the fierce competition for the lucrative Arab market

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IF YOU want to know who wrote the script to the Gulf war, you should come to Dubai. Hughes Missile Systems have their phalanx on display - 'years ahead . . . for engaging and killing modern threats' - while their Sparrow guided missile meets 'the highest performance criteria' according to their publicity. AIL's jamming system was 'crucial to the protection of Allied forces during the Gulf war' while Garmin's global positioning system advertises itself as 'Desert Storm Proven - Combat Tough - Budget Friendly'.

Yes, just 33 months after the Americans drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and promised to turn the Gulf into an oasis of peace, you can inspect a spanking new American F/A- 18 strike fighter and - if you follow the example of Kuwait this year - take delivery of 40 of the planes, along with a dozen Apache attack helicopters. 'Demonstrated multi- mission capability, shot down Migs - then dropped 8,000lbs ordnance on target,' the McDonnell Douglas F-18 brochures tell their potential Arab buyers.

We have come a long way, it seems, since George Bush proposed to the world - on 29 May 1991, to be precise - a Middle East arms control initiative that would 'slow and then reverse the build-up of unnecessary and destabilising weapons' in the region. Why, only two months earlier, he had vouchsafed the thought that 'it would be tragic if the nations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf were now, in the wake of war, to embark on a new arms race'.

Well, tell that to the boys from Hughes or British Aerospace or to the makers of the MiG-29 and Sukhoi-35 whose behemoths went through their paces yesterday. 'The guarantee for a peaceful sky,' crowed the MiG-29 promotion literature. Those interested in purchasing should write to No 7, First Botinsky Drive, Moscow.

British Aerospace is here with planes, missiles, computer-generated attack simulation and a wooden mock-up of the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA). Omanis and Kuwaitis stood behind machine-guns and ran their hands along the missiles and the EFA fuselage. A publicity board beside an air-launched anti-radar missile told Arab generals that 'blind homing preserves missile lethality'. Lethality, kill, fire- and-forget. All the old cliches were there. Along with the absence of the one word which no arms salesman will put in his brochure: death.

Take the British Aerospace simulator. Five thousand souls have already passed through this tiny wooden cinema, wherein each viewer enjoys a 180-degree pilot's-eye view of an EFA combat mission across desert terrain. Music - of the Where Eagles Dare variety, all trumpets and drums - introduces an air-launching of missiles before a faint disco beat accompanies the destruction of two 'enemy' aircraft. 'You have just witnessed a mission which we hope will never become a reality,' an English voice tells us. But, it goes on, 'the threat' remains real; because Russia is selling high- performance jets 'to Third World countries, some of them unstable and unpredictable'.

Now who might they be? What was the desert terrain in the video film? Could British Aerospace be referrring, perhaps, to a country which is reported to be seeking those nice new Sukhoi-35s parked outside, a country which lies just across the Gulf from Dubai? The Kuwaitis and Saudis in the audience watched transfixed. Then we were ushered politely but speedily out. 'Some VIPs are coming to watch,' Ned Frith of British Aerospace announced. And who might they be, we asked? 'Just piss off, will you?' Mr Frith responded. The VIPs turned out to be officers from the United Arab Emirates, greeted warmly as they arrived to observe the EFA's simulated attack - and, of course, to learn about 'the threat'.

In Dubai yesterday, there was also to be seen the world's first and last specially 'hardened' Boeing 707, specifically designed to withstand the devastating electro-magnetic effects of a nuclear explosion. And if you have any old unmaintained Russian Hind helicopters in your armoury, the Uzbeks had a stand all to themselves to help you out.

Among the missile-sellers, there was just one combat 'success' that we were not encouraged to ask about. At the Hughes stand, a photograph showed an American Ticonderoga-class warship - identical to USS Vincennes - firing a missile into the sky. Wasn't it a Hughes missile fired from a ship just like this one, we asked an eager young executive, that shot down the Iranian Airbus in July 1988, killing all 269 passengers on board? He gave us a friendly smile. 'Let me give you my card,' he replied. D Bruce Fields, a manager for Hughes' International Programme Development, paused for a moment of reflection. 'Yes, it was one of our standard missiles,' he said. 'I didn't want them to use any photographs of a Ticonderoga-class ship in our publicity this week. It was only when I got here that I saw this picture on our wall. Fortunately, we're not passing it out with our publicity.'

But of course, the Dubai air show is intended to sell civil airliners as well as weapons. Thus can Prince Charles safely tour the stands today; thus did the salesman last night repair to the Dubai Creek Yacht and Golf Club to enjoy - courtesy of the Italian embassy - that most combat-proven and budget-friendly of all Rossini's operas, The Barber of Seville.

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