Sky high diplomacy: Saudi Arabia's fighter jet puzzle entangles Eurofighter, Rafale and global alliances
In a twist of geopolitical manoeuvres, Germany has given a green light to a potential Eurofighter Typhoon deal for Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for the Kingdom to solidify its long-delayed acquisition of 50 fighters.
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said last week that the decision was influenced by the unfolding developments in the escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel, referencing Saudi Arabia intercepting missiles launched by Houthis towards Israel.
Experts cautioned, however, that accepting the stated reasoning at face value might be somewhat simplistic, considering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) already fields a capable fighter fleet. Equally, Germany lifting the fighter jet embargo does not mean a Eurofighter deal is certain.
Why did Germany lift the arms export hold now?
“The Saudi Arabian air force, also using Eurofighters, shot down Houthi missiles (from Yemen) that were on their way to Israel. And it is in the light of all these developments that the German government’s position on the Eurofighter must be seen,” Baerbock was quoted as saying.
Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), said: “There was some suggestion that the German position [on Eurofighter] might be changing towards the end of last year. Baerbock’s comments have formally reinforced that.”
It is also possible that the pressure placed on Germany by the four-nation Eurofighter consortium has reached a point where Berlin had no choice but to give in.
“I believe the UK and Italy have been pressuring Germany to lift the embargo,” Housniya Jbeily, head of the geopolitical research department at the International Center for Geopolitical and Economic Research (ICGER), told Shephard. “If Saudi Arabia failed to get the Eurofighter Typhoons, it could go to manufacturers outside of the west, including China or maybe even Russia.”
Barrie echoed Jbeily’s statement, saying that the other Eurofighter partner nations both at the industrial and political level have pointed out to German politicians that their arms export policy in regard to the Typhoon would have a knock-on effect beyond the fourth-generation platform.
A deal for a new Eurofighter Typhoon order has not yet been made, while Saudi Arabia has also been seriously considering the Dassault Rafale fighter as an alternative. (Photo: DGA)
“Another argument is that Germany is seeking to win Saudi Arabia to its side, especially in the context of the new India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC),” Jbeily said. “Saudi Arabia will play a huge part in this [initiative] and Germany will have great economic benefits from it.”
IMEC, a key part of US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific and Middle East strategy, was launched at the end of last year during the G20 summit in India. Described as Biden’s alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the transcontinental maritime and railway network would connect the Indian coast to European markets.
Although the ambitious corridor plan is still alive, with war raging and potentially spreading in the Middle East, it faces significant challenges. The prospect of normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which will be crucial for the project, seems slim for now.
Rafale or Typhoon for Saudi Arabia
A deal for a new Eurofighter Typhoon order has not yet been made, while Saudi Arabia has also been seriously considering the Dassault Rafale fighter as an alternative. As reported by Breaking Defence last December, Dassault’s CEO confirmed the negotiations between the company and the Kingdom.
There are a couple of clear arguments as to why Saudi Arabia could decide to finalise the Eurofighter deal. Firstly, the Gulf nation already operates a fleet of 72 Typhoons, making the purchase of additional platforms from an interoperability, maintainability and pilot training perspectives very attractive.
“There is certainly a logic of not unnecessarily introducing a new type [of jet] if you don’t have to,” Barrie said. He added that in a UK context, the Eurofighter deal could potentially encompass a Tempest element as well.
As Shephard extensively reported, Saudi Arabia has been known to be pushing the UK, Japan and Italy to allow it to become a full partner in the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP). The UK MoD has shown a keen interest in advancing collaboration on GCAP and the UK-specific Tempest programme. This adds a broader dimension to the Eurofighter deal, as the KSA may be reluctant to upset the UK and Italy —fellow GCAP nations— by abandoning the Eurofighter acquisition.
The KSA's GCAP ambitions could be harmed by abandoning any potential Eurofighter acquisition. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)
“If the Typhoon deal [were not] to go ahead, it would make any Saudi involvement in Tempest at any point that much more difficult,” Barrie noted.
Jbeily, on the other hand, contended that despite Saudi Arabia’s requirement for modern air power, the country could explore alternative sources rather than limiting itself to a single option. She said the nation was well known for substituting geoeconomic strategies with geopolitical ones by using deals and funds to gain geopolitical support.
Jbeily highlighted the Qatar diplomatic crisis and how Qatar’s deal for 24 Eurofighters and nine Hawk trainers with the UK’s BAE Systems prompted the KSA to purchase UK products (including some additional Eurofighters, which were ultimately blocked by both the UK and Germany) just to retain its influence in the region.
“I think the KSA just wants to end this deal and forget about the Eurofighter, but it does not mean it [won’t look to other manufacturers],” she said. “It has been thinking about buying aircraft from China and I believe it hasn’t seriously considered Russian-made jets only because they haven’t been tested yet.”
Jbeily noted that the Kingdom has been in a pursuit of developing partnerships with different companies and different countries.
“Many countries are seeking dominance in the Middle East, such as Iran, Turkey and Egypt, so the KSA needs a huge air cover to position itself as a main player in the geopolitical space,” she added.
Saudi Arabia’s defence industrial base and its role in Tempest
Barrie said that based on previous deals, such as the UK–KSA Al-Yamamah arms deal, if Saudi participation in Tempest is to come to fruition, it will “almost certainly” be a government-to-government deal.
“If you assume that the Typhoon deal with 48 aircraft goes ahead, then that provides another opportunity to get the KSA more involved in some element of production, final assembly or component production,” Barrie remarked.
He added that this could help boost the Gulf nation’s defence aerospace capacity “with a very-very long-term aim, somewhere out decades away, that at some point [the KSA] would have some kind of capacity to contribute to Tempest.”
In the near term, however, the focus will be on getting the Eurofighter deal through the door.
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