Saudi Arabia is considering purchasing French fighter jets for the first time. Specifically, they are exploring the acquisition of 54 Dassault Rafale multirole fighters from France, representing Riyadh’s inaugural procurement of French-made combat aircraft. This potential deal comes after years of negotiations between Saudi Arabia and France, indicating a significant development in their relationship.
Saudi authorities have formally requested a detailed budget proposal from Dassault Aviation for purchasing 54 Rafale fighters, with a deadline for Dassault to respond by November 10. However, it’s crucial to understand that this request does not guarantee an immediate agreement. The Saudis might be in the early stages of exploring their options, and the outcome remains uncertain.
It’s worth noting that previous reports had suggested that Saudi Arabia was contemplating the acquisition of a more extensive fleet of Rafale fighters, potentially numbering between 100 and 200 aircraft. This decision, if realized, would mark a substantial departure from their existing fleet, which primarily consists of advanced U.S. F-15SAs and UK Eurofighter Typhoons, alongside older British Panavia Tornado aircraft.
The motivation behind Saudi Arabia’s interest in French fighters could be politically driven. The Eurofighter Typhoon, a significant part of their current fleet, contains components from Germany. Consequently, Germany holds veto power over the export of this multinational European aircraft and has chosen to exercise this right, effectively blocking the sale of Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, confirmed in July that there would be no immediate decision regarding delivering Eurofighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of intent with the United Kingdom to supply 48 Typhoon aircraft, which was meant to supplement the 72 units acquired in 2007. However, these additional purchases have been delayed due to Germany’s veto. Given this impasse, Saudi Arabia’s request for a budget estimate for 54 Rafale fighters might serve multiple purposes.
Firstly, it could be a genuine exploration of alternative options for fighter aircraft, diversifying their sources beyond the Eurofighter. Secondly, it may serve as a diplomatic maneuver to exert pressure on the United Kingdom, encouraging them to persuade Germany to change its stance and allow the Eurofighter sale to proceed. This tactic of leveraging alternative fighter options to influence political decisions has been employed before, as in the late 1970s when Israel pressured the United States not to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia.
The consideration of French jets might also stem from a recent dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In response to Riyadh’s agreement with OPEC+ to reduce oil production, some U.S. lawmakers proposed legislation to freeze all arms sales to the kingdom. Such legislation, if passed, could affect the operational availability of the Saudi fleet of American F-15 fighters, which currently serves as their primary airpower.
To mitigate this potential risk and avoid dependence on a single source, Saudi Arabia appears to be exploring options to diversify its fighter fleet. Nearby countries like Qatar have procured over 100 4.5-generation fighters from various Western countries, while the United Arab Emirates has sourced advanced fighters from France and the United States, demonstrating a willingness to diversify their military suppliers.
In summary, Saudi Arabia’s recent contact with Dassault regarding the Rafale fighters could lead to the acquisition of 48 Eurofighters or potentially result in a groundbreaking deal that introduces French fighters into the Royal Saudi Air Force for the first time in its history. The outcome of this move will likely have significant implications for the country’s military capabilities and diplomatic relationships.