ROME AND PARIS — Italy and France are locked in a battle to sell new naval vessels to Qatar, which is in a hurry to buy a defense kit as it prepares to host the Soccer World Cup in 2022.
The Italo-French clash took center stage last month at the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX) in Qatar when Italy's defense minister thought she was about to sign a nonbinding agreement for the sale of corvettes, only for the ceremony to be postponed after French lobbying, sources knowledgeable of the event said.
The incident is the latest in a series of tussles over naval sales between France and Italy, two countries who have organized not one, but two joint ship-building programs in recent years.
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti flew to Qatar for the show, which was held March 29-31, with the aim of signing the nonbinding agreement to sell four corvettes and one supply vessel to the Qatari navy.
The minister was accompanied by Mauro Moretti, CEO of Finmeccanica, and Giuseppe Bono, CEO of Italian shipyard Fincantieri, the two firms set to be involved in the deal.
The high-level delegation arrived in Doha following the visit to Rome in January by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, his first since taking the throne in June 2013.
One source knowledgeable of talks about naval vessels said that Italian financing of a deal, which could have been worth €3.5 billion (US $3.9 billion), was discussed, as was Italian involvement in the construction of a military hospital in Qatar.
France had previously offered its own deal for naval vessels but had not reached the point of signing any deal, binding or nonbinding.
But at DIMDEX, the French lobbied hard to have a chance to make a new, revised offer, sources in Italy told Defense News.
"France asked for time to change its offer," one source said.
"The Qatari minister of defense decided to oblige," a second source said.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Al-Thani at DIMDEX, while DCNS Chairman Hervé Guillou and Thales Senior Executive Vice-President Pascale Sourisse also attended the maritime exhibition.
France returned to negotiations with a discounted offer of three vessels, which would be variants on the FREMM frigates it built in a parallel development with the Italian Navy launched in 2005, the Italian sources said.
The vessels would be equipped with MBDA Aster 30 missiles to hit ballistic missiles and Exocet, an anti-ship weapon, according to the French website LaTribune. "The ship would be heavily armed," a French defense executive said.
Aster 30 is designed to hit targets more than 100 kilometers away, giving the frigate an extended range of strike. The French Navy sails Horizon, a 7,000 ton air defense frigate fitted with Aster 30, and the 6,000 ton FREMM frigate armed with Aster 15, which has a range of more than 30 kilometers.
DCNS, Thales and MBDA declined to comment.
Thales has previously supplied Qatar MRR 3D and Triton naval radars, as well as Tiger and Master land-based radars, a spokeswoman said. Master predates the more advanced Ground Master system.
France and Qatar hold close bilateral ties, said Mariane Renaux of Kyrema, a consultancy.
On Sept. 22, France signed a cooperation agreement on military training, following a statement of intent signed in May on cooperation on organizing the World Cup competition in 2022.
Those agreements follow a 1994 defense and security cooperation accord and other bilateral pacts.
"Doha is significantly increasing spending in military equipment for several reasons," Renaux said.
There is concern over the potential risk from Iran and tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. "If it wants to maintain a relative independence in its foreign policy, Qatar has to arm itself," she said. Doha is looking to protect offshore oil platforms and the World Cup matches.
Renaux added: "DCNS needs exports."
The naval company needs to boost performance in 2016 after returning to profit in 2015 following a 2014 net loss of €347.3 million. A Qatar order is vital for the shipyard at Lorient, northern France.
In a separate deal on March 30, Qatar and MBDA signed at DIMDEX a memorandum of understanding for a coastal missile system worth some €640 million, the missile company said in a statement.
The system can be armed with the Exocet MM40 Block 3 and the Marte extended range missiles. The missiles can be guided by radars on their own system or a coastal surveillance network.
Doha has also ordered 24 Dassault Rafale fighters and missiles worth a total €6.7 billion.
Of that order, some €2 billion is for missiles, marking the biggest export deal for MBDA, a second French defense executive said. Sagem's modular air-ground armament (AASM) armement air-sol modulaire, a powered smart bomb, is included in that order.
Despite the recent Qatar-France deals, one Italian source said he still backed Italy to close the naval deal. "The corvettes are preferred and this latest step is not a disappointment, merely a delay," he said.