DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Dassault Aviation hopes to capitalize on France's participation with the United Arab Emirates in the air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's crumbling regime in Libya to promote the sale of 60 Rafale multi-role jets to the Persian Gulf state.
The leading French aircraft builder sent a team of executives to Abu Dhabi, the emirates' capital, Sept. 3 to kick start negotiations that have dragged on for three years. The deal is potentially worth $9 billion-$10 billion and Dassault is desperate to sign its first foreign buyer for the twin-engine fighter.
It's been in service with France's air force and navy since 2006 but it needs a big overseas sale to keep the production line going to provide the 286 jets ordered by the French forces.
In 2007, the French bungled negotiations for the Rafale with Morocco, which bought Lockheed Martin's F-16s.
Ironically, Gadhafi at one point considered buying 14 Rafales -- the same aircraft that helped topple his 42-year dictatorship.
That deal was still in the works when a pro-democracy uprising broke out in March, hard on the heels of insurrections that ousted the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.
After scores of missions against Gadhafi's forces by French Rafales, as part of the NATO air campaign to aid the Libyan rebels, Dassault feels it's on a roll.
"We really feel like we've turned a corner and we're at a level of extreme performance," Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the French defense procurement agency DGA, said at the Paris Air Show in June.
India has shortlisted the Rafale, along with the Eurofighter Typhoon, for an $11 billion purchase of 126 combat jets.
The Rafale's up against Sweden's Saab Gripen NG and Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet in a competition for a $5 billion 36-fighter deal by Brazil.
There had been hopes Dassault could sell 14-28 Rafales to Kuwait but those were dashed after Islamist lawmakers in the emirate's Parliament rejected the potential deal as "suspicious."
One claimed unidentified officials with "vested business interests" were trying to influence the Defense Ministry to buy the jet.
Negotiations with the emirates hit a roadblock in February 2010 when Abu Dhabi demanded the Rafales had to be armed with Boeing's SLAM ER/2 missile instead of the European-made MBDA AM-39 they're fitted to carry.
The SLAM -- for stand-off land-attack missile -- is a spinoff from the radar-guided air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missile. It's a high-precision guided munition for surgical strikes against fixed land targets and ships in port or at sea.
The AM-39 is a version of France's Exocet anti-ship missile first used with considerable effect by Argentina's air force against Britain's navy in the 1982 Falklands War.
The emirates' military says it wants missiles capable of reaching targets deep inside Iran. While the AM-39 has a range of 65 miles, the SLAM ER/2 can travel up to 160 miles.
The United Arab Emirates has built up what is widely viewed as the most formidable air force in the Persian Gulf. It has 184 combat aircraft, including 155 ground-attack fighters, mainly 55 Lockheed F-16E Block 60 Desert Eagles, 25 F-16F Block 60 Eagles and 18 French Dassault Mirage 2000-9DADs and 44 Mirage 2000-9RADs.
These Mirages could play a critical role in Dassault's negotiations.
The Intelligence Online Web site reported this month that Dassault was now more open to an emirates' proposal to take back the 2000-9s in part exchange for the Rafales.
"The Mirages could in turn be sold to the new regime in Tripoli, Libya's air fleet having largely been destroyed during the conflict," Intelligence Online noted.
"By happy coincidence, the civil servant who is in charge of ensuring that the new regime (in Tripoli) gets access to Libya's frozen funds is Frenchman Jacques-Emmanuel Lajugie, former director of international development at France's military procurement agency, the DGA," Intelligence Online reported.
"Before the Libyan uprising began, Lajugie had looked into selling the Rafale to Tripoli."
Still it's not likely to be plain sailing for Dassault. There are sizeable differences over the Rafale price tag because of foreign exchange fluctuations.
But Abu Dhabi has opened negotiations with Lockheed, which has offered to provide F-16s until it can deliver the fifth-general F-35 Joint Strike Fighter currently under development.