MILAN — The United States’ dominance of the combat aircraft industry could see increased competition as the French hope to bolster their slice of the pie. With a German veto blocking Eurofighter deliveries to Saudi Arabia, and amid Israel’s persistent opposition to any F-35 sale to Qatar, this may be French firm Dassault’s opportunity to further push its fighter in the region.
In July, French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu visited Qatar where he met with the emir in hopes of strengthening their strategic partnership through operational and industrial cooperation.
Following the trip, reports emerged that Qatar may opt to purchase an additional 24 Rafale from Dassault, which would bring the country’s fleet to 60, having acquired an initial batch of 24 in 2015 and another 12 in 2017. Although Qatar’s Defense Ministry hasn’t announced its decision, analysts have told Defense News such as sale appears likely.
“That they would come back to the table seeking another order is relatively unsurprising considering they already have the Rafale as well as another French-designed and -built type — the Mirage 2000-5 — in their fighter inventory,” said Dan Darling, the director of military and defense markets at Forecast International.
Qatar would want a fleet of 60 Rafales for two reasons, Darling explained: for stronger deterrence capabilities and for political purposes. There is a political element attached to major defense purchases, he said, where Qatar “buys” influence with the exporting nation and vice versa.
Richard Aboulafia, a managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory who has tracked aircraft programs for more than 30 years, agrees the diplomatic benefits are key.
“They [the Qatari government] view fighter aircraft as an opportunity to purchase a strategic relationship, and given their recent history with Gulf neighbors, these are extremely important for Qatar,” he said, referring to a recent diplomatic crisis that saw several nations accuse Doha of funding terrorist groups. “It isn’t [about] the Rafales.”
Experts, however, diverge over who could be the next customer of the Rafale in the greater Middle East. For Aboulafia, Saudi Arabia appears to be the logical contender, even if the U.S. agrees to sell F-35s to the kingdom.
“They [Saudis] already source F-15s from the U.S. and of course want F-35s. But as they are eager to continue their dual-source decision, they’ll want to buy another aircraft from another provider. Eurofighter tranche 2 is on hold. There’s really nobody else other than France,” he said.
Earlier this summer, while Germany relaxed arms restrictions on Saudi Arabia, it remained firm in blocking deliveries of the Eurofighter to the kingdom. The twin-engine aircraft is made by a consortium of French firm Airbus, British business BAE Systems and Italian company Leonardo.
Germany’s decision appeared to have irked the U.K., given four years ago the British foreign secretary demanded Germany lift its restraints on weapons transfers because they stood to hurt the British defense industry. BAE Systems is one of the largest private sector employers in Saudi Arabia, where it employs 5,300 Saudis — 57% of its total workforce there.
Although Germany’s Eurofighter veto could benefit Dassault in the absence of other competition, Darling said Saudi Arabia may not have a vested interest in the French jet because it fairly recently purchased more than 80 American-made F-15 fighters, upgraded legacy versions, and has expressed interest in buying the F-35 and joining the Global Combat Air Program. The latter is a trilateral effort involving the U.K., Japan and Italy to develop a sixth-generation fighter.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to improve diplomatic relations, with the latter’s foreign affairs minister visiting the kingdom Aug. 17. However, Gaspard Schnitzler, a research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said it’s unlikely this would hinder or stop France from selling the Rafale to Saudi Arabia.
It’s possible pressure from public opinion or potential monetary risks could interfere with such a sale, “but we have to keep in mind that for years now, the Gulf has been one of the major export areas for French weapons,” he added.
A more probable export opportunity for the Rafale, besides in Qatar, would be a top-up order by Egypt in light of the collapsed deal with Russia for Su-35 aircraft that fell through over U.S. sanctions, said Darling. Cairo last placed an order for 30 additional Rafales in 2021, bringing its fleet number to 54.
But no matter how well-placed the Rafale seems, an additional order from Qatar or its neighbors does not necessarily signal a declining demand for the fifth-generation fighter. Aboulafia and and Darling agreed that F-35 interest in the Middle East remains strong.
Several Arab states would indeed purchase the F-35 were it not for Israel’s strict opposition. For instance, Qatar in 2020 reportedly made a formal request for the Lockheed Martin jet, which was closely followed by Israel declaring it would oppose any F-35 sale by the U.S. to the Gulf country. A concrete deal has yet to materialize.
“The main question is whether the U.S. would even be willing to sell the F-35 to Doha. It has been wary about F-35 sales to Arab states, primarily because of its commitment to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors and rivals in the region,” Darling said.
The same approach has applied to Saudi Arabia’s interest in the F-35.
“Saudi Arabia would love F-35s, but unless the Biden administration offers them as part of a deal that involves normalized relations with Israel, it won’t happen for a few more years at least,” Aboulafia said. “None of these difficulties are in play in Europe, so European countries can just order F-35s without worry about disapproval.”
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.