Originally published May 3, 2015; metadata updated March 16, 2016
PARIS — Qatar's planned signing of €6.3 billion (US $7.1 billion) of contracts for the Rafale fighter jet and missiles boosts French arms exports to more than €15 billion, the highest value France has ever reached in a single year, defense officials said.
President François Hollande is due to attend the May 4 signing for 24 fighters by Dassault Aviation and missile maker MBDA in Doha, signaling high-level ties.
"At the invitation of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, the president of the Republic will go to Doha on May 4 to attend the signing of contracts between Dassault Aviation and MBDA, and Qatar, as well as the intergovernmental agreement which sets the framework for cooperation between our two countries," the president's Elysée office said in a statement.
The Qatari deal, the third in as many months, follows Egypt and India after fallow years for the twin-engine fighter.
Dassault Chief Executive Eric Trappier said on BFM TV there are options for 12 more Rafales for the Qatar Air Force, Reuters reported on April 30.
The deal includes MBDA Mica air-to-air and Meteor long-range air-to-air missiles, Scalp cruise missiles, and Sagem's armement air-sol modulaire, a powered smart bomb, defense officials said.
French Air Force officers are in talks to train 36 pilots as the Qatari service has asked for that direct link and the training costs are under discussion between the two services, the officials said. Some 100 Qatari mechanics will maintain the fighter, which is a major technological upgrade from the present fleet of 12 Mirage 2000-5s.
France will deliver six twin-seat,18 single-seat versions.
"This confirms the closeness of diplomatic and economic relations between France and Qatar," Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius said in a statement.
Qatar was originally looking for up some 70 fast jets. The French order for 24 aircraft, plus a likely handful of options, has revived speculation among analysts and others that the Gulf state might be considering a split buy with a US fast jet maker.
Such a move would perpetuate the current situation where Qatar has a fleet mix of French and US jets.
Boeing has previously been touted as one of the bidders with the F-15.
A spokesman for the US company said "We've seen the reports from France – and while we have not received any official confirmation, we continue to have a dialogue with many customers in the region. It's important to note that the Rafale and F-15 are different aircraft that offer vastly different capabilities."
Qatar has bought little French equipment over the past 30 years and is in talks for other potential orders, the officials said.
The Qatar contract will push arms exports to more than €15 billion this year, the highest figure for France, an official said. That would be the first time exports exceed annual domestic equipment orders. The Indian deal for 36 Rafales has yet to be sealed, so that figure has been excluded.
France is due to report 2014 arms exports worth €8.3 billion, after €6.87 billion in the previous year. A base figure for French annual exports is around €4 billion.
A total of 48* Rafales have been sold on the foreign market so far, with further prospects seen. The United Arab Emirates has renewed talks, an Arabian Gulf official source has told Defense News. Malaysia is reported to be interested in ordering 12 Rafales. The French jet faces competition from Boeing, Eurofighter and Saab for a deal which Malaysia is unlikely to decide on until 2017. Dassault opened an office in Brussels last year as Belgium is looking for a replacement for the F-16.
The Qatar deal shows how Dassault has unlocked the world market as countries look to the French aircraft maker to diversify their suppliers, said Jean-Claude Allard, senior fellow at think tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.
"There is a war in the Middle East, and Qatar is joining ranks with other countries in relying on airpower as part of their strategy," he said.
There is a sense of urgency as countries seek a fast delivery and that approach sidelines the lengthy negotiations for offset and local production, he said.
Forces of the fundamentalist Islamic State are fighting in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the gulf allies have attacked using airstrikes.
The talks with Qatar lasted some three years, with Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian meeting al-Thani on Feb. 10, 2013, when the then-crown prince raised the subject of the Rafale for the first time.
That meeting launched technical talks, and on Feb. 24, 2014, al-Thani, who became the emir, said, "My father promised to buy this plane. I will buy it," a defense official said.
On Jan. 15, al-Thani met French air chief Gen. Denis Mercier, head of the procurement office Laurent Collet-Billon, and Le Drian in Doha and confirmed the deal was "imminent," the official said. The Qatar leader told Le Drian on April 21 that the final agreement was in place.
Over the three years, Le Drian flew 10 times to Doha, five times to India and twice to Egypt.
Hollande and al-Thani talked on April 29 and the latter confirmed Qatar will acquire 24 Rafales, the president's office said.
France and Qatar signed a defense cooperation agreement in 1994, and Paris refreshed military relations by sending hundreds of troops and the Véhicule Blindé de Combat d'Infanterie fighting vehicle to the bilateral exercise Gulf Falcon 2013.
Qatar in March 2014 announced the order for two Airbus A330 multirole tanker transport aircraft and also exclusive talks for Army and Navy versions of the NH90 helicopter.
Qatar flies the single-engine Mirage 2000-5 bought in the 1980, and previously bought the Mirage F1 and Alpha jet trainer.
In February, Egypt signed a deal for €5.2 billion of weapons comprising 24 Rafales, a DCNS multimission frigate and missiles, while India announced in April a planned buy of 36 Rafales.
The export success for Rafale has left the French jet's main European rival, the Eurofighter Typhoon, trying to repair the damage to its credibility.
"We note the announcement today regarding Qatar's decision to purchase [Dassault's Rafale] combat aircraft. We believe BAE Systems submitted an attractive and competitive proposal to supply Eurofighter Typhoon," a British government spokesman said.
British industry executives said they always reckoned the French would be tough to unseat in Qatar, given the enduring relationship between the air forces of the two nations.
BAE is leading the Typhoon effort for the Eurofighter partners in much of the Middle East, although Finmeccanica is heading the drive to secure a Kuwaiti requirement for a new jet fighter.
The best chance the Typhoon has of regaining lost ground in the export race is a top up of a 72-aircraft purchase by Saudi Arabia.
Those aircraft are being delivered and one industry executive, who asked not to be named, said it was possible that progress on a second order might come toward the end of this year. That could lead to an order from the Saudi close ally, Bahrain, which is looking for a squadron of fast jets, he said.
Eurofighter is a consortium made up of Airbus Defence and Space, BAE and Finmeccanica.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 84 Rafales had been sold in exports. A correction was added March 16, 2016.
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.