Postcard from Aqaba: U.S. Vendors, Embassy Shine

By Stew Magnuson
A Bedouin band serenades SOFEX attendees.

Stew Magnuson photo

AQABA, Jordan — The first impression most have had of Aqaba comes from the classic film Lawrence of Arabia, set during World War I and the Arab Revolt.

In a surprise attack on the Turkish-held fort at the northern end of the Red Sea, T.E. Lawrence, Auda Abu Tayi and their men dramatically ride their horses and camels in a lightning strike over a desert plain.

But anyone who takes movies for historical fact is, of course, foolish. In reality, the campaign took several days, rugged mountains are to the east of the city and a sharp hill leads down to the fort, which is still standing and a popular stop for tourists.

Today, Aqaba — now in Jordan — is better known as a tourist destination with its resorts, beaches and reefs popular with scuba divers.

It is also the new location for SOFEX, the only trade show in the Middle East devoted to special ops. After years of it being held in Amman, the biennial show went on a four-year hiatus due to first its venue being damaged in a storm, then COVID-19.

During that time, the organizers in the Jordanian government decided to change the setting from the capital city Amman to Aqaba, a four-hour drive to the south.

Whether or not that was a good idea after such a long layoff remains to be seen. Most trade industry shows have returned with bigger crowds than ever, but those who had attended SOFEX in the past told National Defense that there seemed to be remarkably fewer attendees and exhibitors — possibly due to the somewhat remote locale. There were many empty stalls and apparent no-shows in the exhibition hall.

But here’s a tip for anyone considering attending SOFEX 2024: take advantage of the distance between Amman and Aqaba and stop to see Petra. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ancient city is carved in the side of sandstone mountains and is best known as a backdrop for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

After that, spend a few days in Wadi Rum, a protected desert region that doubled as the planet Tatooine in Star Wars, and the backdrop for Lawrence of Arabia and The Martian. Camp out under the Milky Way and enjoy the Bedouin hospitality. That may all sound like hype from a tourist brochure, but take it from someone who has traveled to all corners of the globe, the Jordanians are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people around.

Day one of the conference was held in a five-star hotel near the beach and is called the Middle East Special Operations Commanders Conference. Most of the commanders who spoke were preaching to the choir about the importance and uniqueness of special operations forces. Their presentations didn’t have a lot of substance, which was too bad. Many of these officers are down in the trenches carrying out counterterrorism missions every day and probably had more interesting things to say.

One exception was Pakistan’s Maj. Gen. Adil Rehmani, who said that his forces once enjoyed technological superiority over the terrorist groups he faces, but that is no longer the case. They are catching up quickly with night vision goggles and surveillance drones.

The three-day exhibition, which took place at the King Hussein International Airport, was reportedly “purpose-built” for SOFEX, but that turned out just to be the registration and security area.

In front of the hall entrance stood a piece of equipment that may end up being a footnote in history, the Saildrone Explorer, an unmanned surface vessel the Navy’s 5th Fleet had used in a series of experiments in the Persian Gulf. The weathered vessel built by Saildrone of Alameda, California, was plucked from the sea and brought as a static display — and not too soon. The Iranian navy earlier in the year reportedly made an attempt to snatch one of them, but the U.S. Navy arrived in time to thwart their dastardly plans.

The drone had another five minutes of fame on day one of the show when King Abdullah II, the founder of the conference and the supreme commander of the Jordanian Armed Forces, made the rounds and stopped for a considerably long time to receive a briefing from a 5th Fleet officer about the drone. The king — a big believer in renewable energy — was mostly interested in how the USV used solar panels and the ocean currents to generate power, according to an insider privy to the conversation.

The United States had the largest contingent of exhibitors, with Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, Teledyne FLIR, and AM General being the best-known vendors.

U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Henry Wooster came with a contingent of U.S. officials who were there to give the nuts and bolts of how to do business with the kingdom. Along with privately consulting with the small businesses, they gave informative talks at the Association of the United States Army’s speaker’s corner. Hats off to them. No other country at the show saw that kind of dedication to supporting its private sector.

Jordan is not an oil-rich Gulf state and doesn’t have those nations’ resources to spend on weapons. It is nevertheless a stalwart U.S. ally in the region, and hopefully at SOFEX 2024, those empty stalls will be filled with more U.S. vendors.


Topics: Global Defense Market, International, Special Operations

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