Favors French over American Warplanes

Celebrating his first year on the Saudi throne – and the biggest oil profits in Saudi history, estimated at $200 bn – King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz decided the time had come to spend a large part of his gargantuan fortune for the first time in France. He approved a broad military cooperation treaty to which was attached a deal for the purchase of $20 bn worth of French military hardware.

This substantial upgrading of Saudi-French relations is widely credited to the initiatives undertaken by French President Jacques Chirac who paid no less than four state visits to Riyadh in recent years and set himself out to promote the relationship.

During his last visit in March, the Saudis awarded him the signal honor of being the first foreign leader to address to the Majlis Shura (Consultative Council). This gesture underscored the great importance the Saudi royal house attached to Chirac’s visit and made a point of bringing it to the attention of the Saudi general public.

The ceremonial paved the way for the huge accords that were concluded between the two countries. In Paris on July 19-21, the Saudi crown prince and defense minister Prince Sultan signed the military cooperation pact with Chirac as a framework accord and the purchasing transaction with French defense minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

This deal signaled the end of five long years in which the Saudi armed forces were starved of new weaponry. The king topped the armed forces current annual budget with a special allocation for the procurement of arms to modernize the army. The deal with France covers 72 Rafale fighter aircraft, priced at $50m apiece, as well as $5 bn worth of helicopters and transports. Also on the list are Lecrec tanks.

The Rafale aircraft will be stationed at the Hafr al-Batin military airfield in the northeast near the border with Iraq and Kuwait. Several hundred French experts and military men will operate the newly-purchased aircraft. It will be the first time French military personnel are permitted access for a permanent stay at one of Saudi Arabia’s military cities.

The last time Riyadh signed a major military deal with a Western country was in 1988 when under the al-Yamamah transaction Saudi Arabia paid Britain $20 bn for 72 Tornado aircraft.

In 1993, Riyadh ordered another 48 planes under a transaction labeled al Yamamah II. First they were based at the Tabuc facility near the border with Israel. Later they were later replaced with two squadrons of American F-15C/Ds in the face of objections from Washington and Jerusalem.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts report that the French transaction will add two European-French squadrons to the Saudi air force’s three American and three British squadrons. This increment will tilt the balance of Saudi air fighter units in favor of Europe.

The Saudi purchases from France have not gone down well with America’s arms industries or Bush administration officials, notably vice president Dick Cheney, who is in charge of Saudi arms purchases in the United States, because it means that Riyadh has opted against buying the American F-22 in favor of the French aircraft.

If this tendency prevails and the Saudis taper off their purchases of warplanes in America in the years to come, the Saudi air force will become a European preserve. Whether or not Riyadh is motivated only by the wish to diversify its sources and reduce its dependence on a single source of supply, the effect will be to undercut American military influence in the oil kingdom with major strategic ramifications for Saudi-US relations.

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