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Emirates boost U.K. arms drive -- sort of

Nov. 9, 2012 at 10:38 AM   |   Comments

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron's frantic drive to sell BAE Systems' Eurofighter Typhoon jet to London's peeved Persian Gulf allies got a boost of sorts this week from the United Arab Emirates, which is looking for 60 combat aircraft.

Cameron and the Emirates' leader said in a joint communique that they would "establish a defense industrial partnership that involved close collaboration around Typhoon."

But, as far as known, the leaders of the seven-state gulf federation, one of the world's top oil producers, made no firm order.

Still, observed defense analyst Rob Hewson of IHS Jane's in London, "it is a definite statement of interest from a strategic customer who has the means and the intent to purchase jet fighters."

Even so, the French Rafale fighter built by Dassault Aviation apparently is still in the running for a potential $4.8 billion contract.

Cameron spent three days in the gulf this week hustling business for the Typhoon amid fears potential contracts among the United Kingdom's longtime allies have been jeopardized by a growing clamor in Britain against selling arms to Arab monarchies battling to block the drive for democratic reform sweeping the Arab world.

The Emirates has been looking for 60 advanced strike jets for several years to replace its fleet of aging Dassault Mirage 2000s it bought two decades ago.

The French -- led by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was president and now by his successor, Francois Hollande, who was hustling in the gulf himself in October -- have long been in the running.

Aviation industry analysts say the agile multi-role Rafale, flown by the French air force and navy, is still a contender despite the endless negotiations that have taken place on the Emirates' contract.

Cameron's sales drive was undoubtedly undercut after the delta-winged Rafale beat Eurofighter to secure a $20 billion order for the Indian air force for 126 strike jets in December 2011.

The Eurofighter had looked like a sure thing. But Rafale put in the lowest bid and edged the twin-engined Typhoon, built by a consortium of BAE, Italy's Finmeccanica, and the German and Spanish arms of European aerospace giant EADS.

New Delhi's buy made sense inasmuch as the Rafale is logistically similar to India's fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000, which the Rafale will replace.

The Emirates, too, has Mirage 2000s, bought from France two decades ago, and the logistics element could give Dassault the edge again in Abu Dhabi.

BAE, Britain's biggest defense contractor, needs some big sales in the gulf to make up for the recent collapse of a proposed merger with EADS to form a European aerospace and defense giant to rival the Boeing Co. of the United States, and the lost Indian deal.

Indeed, it was the failure to win the Indian contract that was one of the main reasons behind BAE's move to chase the proposed $45 billion merger with EADS that was ultimately blocked by Germany for political reasons.

"Though the Emirates tender would not be as big as the one for India, it comes at a critical time for BAE and the U.K.," the Financial Times observed.

"BAE has been closing factories and slashing thousands of highly skilled jobs in the U.K. as the Ministry of Defense has cut spending."

A lot is riding on the Emirates and with Saudi Arabia, which Cameron seeks to sell 72 Typhoons to add to the 72 it bought in 2009 for $8.6 billion.

Despite a big huddle with Saudi leaders in Riyadh, there's been no indication a new contract's in the offing.

Oman, a former British protectorate on the southwestern top of the Arabian Peninsula strategically overlooking the choke point Strait of Hormuz, is reported to be interested in buying 12 of the jets.

Saudi Arabia and Austria are the only countries to have bought the Typhoon.

Even the countries that build the jet -- Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom -- have been reducing their orders because of hefty defense cutbacks.

But the political developments that led to Cameron's surprise visit to the gulf, which started Monday, would suggest that the British prime minister, facing multiple problems at home and growing ire from gulf leaders, is, to use a cricketing metaphor, "batting on a sticky wicket."

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