Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Fresh from battle experience over Libya, a French Rafale jet is heading to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to strut its stuff amid a heavy pitch to finally clinch a deal for the first foreign sale of the fighter aircraft.
The sleek Rafale, built by Dassault Aviation, is expected to fly at the biennial Dubai Air Show, a five-day jamboree of top aviation, defense and aerospace executives, which begins on Sunday.
French officials have recently hinted that they are currently wrapping up their determined efforts to sell the UAE 60 Rafale combat jets in a lucrative deal reportedly worth over $10 billion. French Defense Minister Gerarde Longuet said last week that there was "a very high probability" that the contract would be completed. "It's a significant deal for this country," Longuet said on France's LCI television. "When you equip an air fleet, it's for 40 years, so the buyer sets his conditions."
Announcement of the deal could come during the Dubai Air Show, which usually serves as a venue for publicizing aviation agreements. The Emirates deal is critical for the French since they have invested so much political capital and effort in the sale that they have just dispatched to the UAE Gen. General Jean-Paul Paloméros, the chief of staff of the French Air Force, for a final push.
The UAE has been in talks with Dassault since 2008 over the purchase of 60 Rafale jets, and if clinched, they would be the first export sale of the multi-role fighter. This would be a crucial breakthrough not just for the manufacturer but for France as well.
"The French are interested in expanding their security relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states because it sees itself as a regional player on par with the United Kingdom and the United States. So you're seeing a big push from them," Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East Gulf Military Analysis, told The Media Line.
The Dubai Air Show comes at a time of aviation industry turbulence, as airlines struggle with higher fuel prices and a sagging world economy. But big civilian aircraft orders are expected to be revealed at the air show, which is also expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors and promises to be bigger than the one in 2009.
Boeing plans to show off its 787 Dreamliner in a debut appearance in the Middle East. It also is bringing its military aircraft, including F-18 and F-15 fighters, C-130J transport planes and Apache attack helicopters.
No one knows the value of the Middle East arms market, because many sales are never reported and ones that are publicized may never go through. But Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI ) estimates that the UAE and other Gulf states alone have agreed to buy some $123 billion in arms over the next decade.
In the midst of the UAE negotiations with the Dassault, the Gulf federation turned to the U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin to buy its F-16s instead of the Rafale. A decade ago, the UAE made one of the largest aerospace deals in Middle East history when it ordered 80 F-16s, worth about $7.3 billion. The F-16s were a version technically more advanced than those used by the U.S. Air Force. The UAE also started negotiations with Boeing for its F-18 Super Hornet.
The French badly need an export win for the Rafale in order to showcase its military competence and help pay for the aircraft's production costs, which could explain their determined efforts to undercut the American offer.
"All fighter jet sales are political. This one is taking extra time because it's a slow negotiation process and there are other aspects rumored to be associated with the deal," Karasik said, alluding to reports of missile sales and satellite links.
The new jets are to eventually replace the aging French-built Mirage 2000-9 fleet of fighters, purchased in the 1990s. As a sweetener, France has reportedly even offered to buy back the Mirage fleet.
The lucrative market for military aircraft sales in the Middle East is ripe for deals as many of the Gulf's air forces are in the throes of modernizing their fleets. A deal for the French here would be a feather in their cap and likely help get their foot in the door.
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