Saudi Arabia’s interest in the French Dassault Rafale aircraft has been making headlines for several months. However, Germany’s recent decision to lift its export ban on Eurofighters to Riyadh triggered speculations about which aircraft would be finally selected.
Experts believe that since the Royal Saudi Air Force already operates the Eurofighter Typhoons, it would want to purchase more of Eurofighters to simplify maintenance.
The Olaf Scholz administration kept blocking Saudi Arabia from purchasing the 48 Eurofighter jets, citing concerns over its involvement in the Yemen conflict and human rights violations, such as the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was apparent that the Saudi administration looked for alternatives, and Rafale emerged as a feasible choice.
Last year, Sebastien Lecornu informed reporters in October that Dassault Aviation and Saudi Arabia had “discussions” on a possible sale of the Rafale. According to local French media claims, Saudi Arabia, whose air force is primarily composed of American F-15s and Eurofighters, sought cost estimates for 54 Rafales from Dassault by November 10.
The development was seen as another potential win for Dassault after French weapons exports reached a new high in the last couple of years, attributed mainly to the success of the twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft Rafale.
While the German decision to lift the ban brought in a lot of jubilation for the Saudi government, it has now cast doubt on the future of a potential Rafale deal.
However, despite this, some military analysts have expressed optimism that if the kingdom chooses to go for the Rafale – even buying a few of them along with a batch of Eurofighters – it would still be a massive win for the Rafale, which rose from its ruins and swept the entire Middle Eastern region with big-ticket deals one after the other.
The Dassault Rafale is a twin-engine multi-role aircraft that can carry out air-to-air combat or can drop bombs on targets in air-to-ground missions, and owing to its cameras, radars, and sensors, can be used for intelligence gathering.
The French fighter jet has already been deployed in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Mali, where it flew its most extended mission in 2013, spanning nine hours and 35 minutes.
Rafale’s stellar combat experience was documented in an earlier report of the EurAsian Times. Despite having a tough time with sales taking a very long time, Rafales have managed to “outclass” their adversaries everywhere they went, including Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq, and Syria, and they were never shot down.
When the possibility of purchase was floated earlier, experts said that the kingdom was likely of the opinion that its dependable jet suppliers might not be so reliable going forward, especially against the backdrop of the protracted Ukraine war.
Moreover, the unprecedented power in the hands of some countries like Germany to block exports, leaving the country in the lurch, was another reason to make the big switch.
Rafale Sweeps Middle East
It has been a good run for Dassault Aviation in the Middle East in recent years. It began several years ago when Egypt signed a deal for 24 Rafale fighter jets in an arms package worth €5.2 billion (US$5.9 billion). Although the number of aircraft was not huge, it was Dassault’s first export contract for the Rafale.
In 2021, Cairo placed another order for 30 more Rafale fighter jets despite questions being raised about the state of its economy and the measures it would have to undertake to finance the purchase.
Nonetheless, this purchase underscored the prowess of this French combat aircraft that has begun to soar. These additional aircraft are expected to be delivered by 2026, bringing the total number of Rafales in Egypt to 54.
After Egypt signed its first deal for Rafale in 2015, Qatar followed suit as it signed an agreement to buy 24 Dassault Aviation-built Rafale fighter jets in a 6.3-billion-euro (4.55 billion pounds) deal. This deal also included MBDA missiles and the French army’s training of 36 Qatari pilots and 100 technicians.
When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blockaded Qatar in 2017, the country possessed a meager air force. Doha has since amassed a powerful fleet of the most sophisticated 4.5-generation jets in the world. In less than ten years, it bought 36 F-15QA, 36 Rafales, and 24 Eurofighters, a rather frantic buildup.
According to reports, Qatar is considering acquiring an additional 24 Rafales, increasing the total number of Rafales owned by Qatar to an incredible 60. If this other order goes through, it may signal Doha’s preference for Rafale over the Eurofighter. That may be ironic given that the export of Rafale took way longer than its counterpart, Eurofighter.
The biggest punch for Rafale came in December 2021 when it signed a deal with Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and staunch ally. The United Arab Emirates ordered 80 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation in a historic deal. At the time, the deal signaled UAE’s frustration with the United States sitting on a prospective deal for the F-35s. The first French warplanes will be delivered in 2027.
The popularity of Rafales has since continued to soar. Last year, reports emerged that Iraq and Dassault Aviation were finalizing an agreement for 14 Rafale aircraft. According to reports, the Iraqi administration had allotted US$3.2 billion for this contract to replace the nation’s aging F-16IQ aircraft, which have increasingly become difficult to maintain.
Defense Analyst Nitin J Tikcu, who is also the Managing Editor of EurAsian Times, believes that the decision is now between Saudi pride and practicality. Eurofighter Typhoons make a lot of practical sense since Riyadh already operates those fighters, and they do not have to start from scratch in terms of maintenance and training. This is what the Saudis originally wanted.
The other aspect is Saudi pride. The oil-rich kingdom is fuming over the German decision to block Eurofighter sales. Saudi is not at war and can fully afford a delayed deployment of capable Rafale fighters.
Unlike the US and Germany, Riyadh understands France has a reputation for non-interventional policy and can be a trusted military ally. India has clearly experienced that, and that is why it opted for Rafales instead of Eurofighters.
The last option the Saudis have is to acquire both the fighters, Rafale and Eurofighter, and diversify their fleet. If Riyadh does partially or fully acquire Rafale fighters, it would be a massive win for Dassault Aviation, which is already basking on the massive export success of its jets, Ticku concludes.