It will be one of the biggest rounds of military spending the Middle East has ever known. There is much to play for and, even now, multi-billion-dollar arms deals are being discussed behind closed doors in Riyadh, London, Paris and Washington. Many others have been agreed. One or two, as expressions of interest and memorandums of understanding (MoUs), are already hidden in plain sight. The combined value of the defence deals, conservatively estimated at $40,000 million, will probably never be known for sure, spread across numerous budget lines over many years to come. But if all goes according to plan, the first official details will begin to filter into the public domain in April, when Saudi Arabia is expected to confirm an initial order for at least 24 of an agreed 72 Eurofighter jets – the backbone of a massive spending programme that will give the kingdom, in the words of one Saudi source, ‘the most powerful air force in the Middle East after Israel’ and make it the most decisive military actor in the Gulf.
The Eurofighter deal has already been described as ‘another Al-Yamamah’ – in reference to the rolling bilateral defence programme signed by London and Riyadh in 1985.
Al-Yamamah is thought to have generated sales in excess of $40,000 million in the last two decades and earned the UK’s BAE Systems up to $1,000 million a year in service and maintenance support contracts. Some 120 ground attack and air strike versions of the Tornado, 90 Hawk jet trainers and at least 50 PC-aircraft have been delivered to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) under the programme – many of which will be upgraded under the latest deal.
An MoU for the delivery of an unspecified number of Eurofighters was signed late last year, and both governments have been working on the detailed contracts since. BAE and the Eurofighter consortium say they are unable to comment on government-to-government negotiations, beyond stating that negotiations ‘are continuing, and continuing well’. The UK Ministry of Defence has also declined to comment. The official signing of at least part of the deal is understood to be imminent, however, although according to one source, ‘the sheer scale, size and complexity of this deal mean it will take longer to complete fully’.
The devil is in the detail, and the development of the Eurofighter is already a fiendishly complex operation. The aircraft is assembled in four different countries, in three separate tranches, and delivered to five main European customers whose allocations have been tied up well in advance (see box, page 6). For a country such as Saudi Arabia to take delivery of any aircraft in the next decade, considerable juggling of allocations is required – in the longer term, all four production lines will have to be expanded. At least 12 Typhoons are expected to be drawn from the UK’s first delivery of tranche-2 aircraft, and will be among 24 Eurofighters earmarked to replace the 32 advanced defence variant (ADV) aircraft in the RSAF’s existing 96-strong fleet of Tornados. A deal to sell some of the replaced aircraft to Chile is understood to be a possibility.