Rafale saga takes a new turn in the UAE

Jon Lake looks at the on-going soap opera of Dassault's campaign to sell its Rafale 'omni-role' fighter to the UAE.


The long-running saga that is the UAE fighter contract has taken another turn.

The story finally seemed to have ended for Dassault in January when it was reported that the general staff of the UAE Air Force and Air Defence (UAE AF&AD) had proposed limiting its consideration of new fighters to the Boeing F-15, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and the Eurofighter Typhoon, effectively shutting Rafale out of the competition.

This came on top of a series of knocks delivered by the UAE before and during the Dubai Airshow last November.

First it emerged that the UAE had been in contact with Boeing and had been seriously examining and evaluating the F-15 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Then, on the eve of the show, it emerged that the UAE had issued a request for proposal (RFP) to Eurofighter, further opening up the competition.

Finally Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the country’s armed forces, praised French president Nicolas Sarkozy for the role that he had played in keeping Dassault at the forefront of the UAE’s considerations (saying that Sarkozy “could not have done more diplomatically or politically to secure the Rafale deal”), but condemned Dassault, who, he said, seemed regrettably “unaware that all the diplomatic and political will in the world cannot overcome uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms”.

Behind the scenes, though, contacts between the UAE and the French side continued, and Charles Edelstenne chairman of Dassault’s board of directors and chief executive officer, returned to Abu Dhabi after the show to try to repair the breach.

And in the wake of India’s selection of the Rafale as the L1 (lowest) bidder in its medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition on January 31 2012, Rafale’s prospects in the Emirates suddenly seem to have been resurrected.

“Good news reports are like worries, they fly in squadrons,” commented French defence minister Gerard Longuet after the Indian announcement.

Buoyed by its success, and with a massive 126 aircraft order virtually guaranteed, Dassault and the French government presented a new offer to the UAE, making unspecified changes to its previous commercial bid, presumably bettering its price, and perhaps agreeing to some of the upgrades which the UAE is understood to require.

French newspaper La Tribune reported that there were still a few technical details to be ironed out but claimed that the deal could be finalised in early March. This report was followed by an article in The National in which Khalid Al Buainnain, a former commander of the UAE Air Force, stated that “discussions never stopped”, and that “the technical and financial and contractual discussions have been completely finished”.

But Buainnain is not an entirely impartial source, as he is the chairman of the Baynuna Group, which has a joint venture with Dassault, and which is working on “how we can smooth out this contract”.

France’s Air & Cosmos magazine has also reported that all of the technical and financials terms of the Rafale sale to the UAE have been settled, and that contract signature is awaiting the signing of a broader state-to-state defence agreement. This could be signed with President Sarkozy due to visit the UAE as Arabian Aerospace went to press.

But despite these optimistic reports, BAE Systems is continuing to work with the UAE on its offer of the Eurofighter Typhoon and UK industry sources were quick to sound a cautionary note.

One said: “The French were in a bad position in the UAE but MMRCA turned things round for them and they’re now in a good position, but I’m confident that as things stand, the Typhoon now offers a better solution for the UAE’s needs, and I think there’s a way to go before any decision.”

The UAE process is being watched with interest elsewhere in the GCC, as both Qatar and Kuwait have similar fighter requirements, and both Rafale and Typhoon are under consideration in both nations.