Qatar targets multibillion-dollar fighter jet deal
Qatar is preparing for a major purchase of fighter jets, with the contract likely to be won by US or French firms, say analysts.
The expected deal would follow announcements in Saudi Arabia and the UAE on significant planned fighter jet acquisitions as Gulf nations continue to build up their homeland defences.
Late last year, Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF) officials told a conference in London that a formal evaluation of fighter jet capabilities was under way, and that a winner was expected to be announced before the end of 2012.
Brigadier Gen Mubarak bin Mohammed al Khayarin told people attending the Shephard Air Power Middle East event in November that while the number of jets to be acquired was still under discussion, it was likely Qatar would order between 24 and 36 units.
The new planes would replace the QEAF's existing fleet of French-made Dassault Mirage 2000-5s.
Fighter jets made by companies in France, the UK, Italy and the US are being evaluated, Brig Gen al Khayarin said, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Boeing F-15, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
The Swedish company Saab is also entering the competition, according to the trade magazine Aviation Week.
Dan Darling, a Middle East defence analyst with Forecast International in the US, said the acquisition was not being geared to refashion Qatar's regional profile.
"This purchase is merely a replacement and modernisation of the current fighter fleet," Mr Darling said. "It already has US military bases on its soil to act as its deterrent."
France's Dassault would be considered a front-runner to supply its new Rafale jets to Qatar, Mr Darling said, because the company supplied its Mirage jets to the Qatari Air Force in the 1990s. But he added that France had had a difficult time securing an export order for the Rafale.
"With US platforms the preferred choice among the GCC states, Qatar may wish to follow suit for interoperability purposes," Mr Darling said. Although Qatar's defence spending is small compared with that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the purchases it did make between 2005 and 2009 were overwhelmingly awarded to US companies, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
As a sign of Qatar's growing role as a buyer of military and civilian aircraft, Boeing opened its first office in the country last month.
Mr Darling said Qatar could also be interested in one of the newest and "stealthiest" fighter jets, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin. However, such a sale would be more complex politically, with approvals needed from the US Congress first, he said.
Defence companies, faced with slowing economic growth in the US and Europe, are increasingly focusing on the Middle East to boost sales.
The US government recently alerted Congress to the possible sale worth up to US$60 billion (Dh220.38bn) of aircraft, naval ships and associated long-term service contracts by US defence contractors to Saudi Arabia. That deal includes orders for 84 new Boeing F-15 fighter aircraft and upgrades of 70 of the kingdom's existing F-15s.
In the UAE, Dassault has been in protracted negotiations to supply the Armed Forces with Rafale jets which, if successful, would mark the first export sales of the Rafale. Prospects appear to have improved after recent statements from the French government.
Alain Juppe, the French defence minister, was reported as saying during a presidential New Year's address at a French air force base: "We're advancing with [UAE] because negotiations have resumed. We'll see, it's on the right track."
The comments came after a meeting in Paris last month between Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.