Saudi Arabia has spent decades building an enormous air force composed exclusively of advanced US and British fighter jets. But Riyadh’s reported interest in potentially purchasing a large number of French jets may be a sign it doesn’t think its long-time patrons are as reliable as before.
In December, France’s La Tribune financial newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Saudi Arabia was considering acquiring 100 to 200 Dassault Rafale fighters. The report comes amid developments suggesting Riyadh’s traditional suppliers may not be as forthcoming with jets in the future.
In October, anger at Riyadh over a cut in oil production led US lawmakers to propose legislation freezing all American arms sales to the kingdom, which could have grounded most of the Saudi air force and would further fray already strained US-Saudi relations.
In July, Germany announced it would not allow additional Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets to be delivered Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air force’s 72 Eurofighters are its second most numerous fighter type behind its US-made F-15s.
Saudi Arabia’s neighbours in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have already built up large fleets of Western-made jets that include dozens of Rafales. The La Tribune report, while unconfirmed, suggests political and practical concerns are pushing the Saudis toward the French jet.
Buying more Typhoons would be “the sensible move” since the Saudis have the infrastructure to train and operate with that jet, “but a German block prevents that”, said Sebastien Roblin, a widely published military-aviation journalist.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also “not currently inclined to throw Washington any free bones by ordering F-15EXs,” and despite an “about-face” by President Joe Biden, Roblin said, the Saudis know future jet sales “could be disrupted by domestic political revulsion for Riyadh’s actions domestically or the war in Yemen”.
As bin Salman pursues detente with his main rival, Iran, and improves relations with China, opposition to such sales may only increase.