Most airshows in the USA are just that: airplanes flying around, maybe a few on the ground on display. The very biggest, sure, often have a ton on the ground, but they seem to be mostly military and historic military hardware. And really that's about it, which to be fair is not entirely unreasonable: airplanes flying around showing off is the part that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd.
The Dubai Air Show is a different breed than most anything in the United States, and probably has far more in common with huge international airshows like Farnbourough and the Paris Air Show (Salon du Bourget), where it's actually a big military-commercial exhibition and trade show, complete with multiple billions (often tens of billions) of dollars of airplanes sold. You walk what feels like a kilometer in from the parking lot, after sitting in a kilometer-long line just to enter the parking lot, passing by military brass, hordes of well-groomed sales reps, senior airline executives, and the odd reporter and photographers.
The trade show/exhibition hall at Dubai World Central (DWC) airport is actually not anything special, until you consider the contents inside. You're not inside for more than a minute and you realize you just walked by a cruise missile. o_0 Manufacturers big and small have a presence, from Boeing and Airbus to tiny makers you'd never heard of who barely have a desk in a shared stand. Then you get outside to the apron, where the big makers have their own air-conditioned two-story pavillions outside the flightline, which is packed with an incredible display of airplanes, helicopters, and weapons. The United States Air Force (USAF) has its own section with at least five aircraft (KC-46A, E-11A BACN, C-130J, HC-130, F-16 Block 52), the United Kingdom Royal Air Force (RAF) has an Airbus A400M, Russia has the brand-new Su-75 Checkmate hidden in a yet another fully enclosed pavillion plus plenty of helicopters on the flightline, and of course, as hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) military has plenty of its own hardware on display, from C-17A's to AH-64D Apache's to F-16F Block 60 (more advanced than the USAF fleet) to Mirage 2000's. China has the Hongdu L-15/JL-10, Japan the Kawasaki C-1, Brazil the Embraer KC-390, the list goes on and on.
The commercial is dominated by Airbus and Boeing, with smaller manufacturers such as Embraer and Irkut in attendance, plus a few business jets such as the Dassault Falcon 8X. Middle Eastern carriers have by far the best representation, probably paid handsomely by Airbus and Boeing to display the A220-300, A321neo, A350-900, A380-800, 737 MAX, 787, and others. Perhaps the most uniquely relevant opportunity for the average #AVgeek is the opportunity to tour inside many airlines you might not otherwise fly, including Etihad, Gulf Air, Emirates, Saudia, flyDubai, etc.
But enough of that-- the best part of course is the afternoon flying display. It's a little different every day, although some airplanes flew most days. Today (day 2) opened with the Indian Air Force Surya Kiran flying BAE Hawks and ended with the Russian Knights flying Sukhoi Su-30SM's. In-between was the F-16's of both the USAF and the UAE, Kawasaki C-1, AugustaWestland AW609 and Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotors, Kamov Kamov Ka-52 Havoc, etc. Boeing 777X (777-9) also got a chance to show what one of the biggest planes in the sky could do, as did the Airbus A350-900 and Irkut MC-21-310. And you got to see all of this while hiding under the wing of a 787 for shade!
The show really needs a full day, maybe a full day plus an extra afternoon to see different airplanes in the flying display; the single not-quite-full day I gave it wasn't enough. Making the Emirates flyover on opening day would have been awesome, and the opportunity to check out the airplane interiors was far more fun than I expected. Missing out on the chance to see the interior of the 777X and the Boeing 737 MAX EcoDemonstrator was a bummer, and I'm still not sure (as an ordinary attendee) if I could have gotten in to see the Sukhoi Su-75 or not. Next show is 2023!