PARIS --- Saudi Arabia has for several months been dragging its feet on several large procurement contracts it has negotiated with France, and French industry officials are becoming concerned that the delays might mean the Saudis have, in effect, decided to drop the contracts.
The delays could be due to the Saudis’ disenchantment with French President Jacques Chirac, in which case the contracts could be signed by the new French President after the France’s presidential election in April. They also could be a sign that Saudi attention is exclusively focused on infighting among various factions of the ruling al Saud royal family for the succession of ailing King Abdullah.
“We have no credible information, and the delay is fueling all sorts of rumors,” said one industry official. “Some say that Saudis are waiting until after the French presidential election in April, others that all arms contracts have been put on hold until an ongoing Saudi succession dispute is settled. Really, you don’t know what to believe.”
Another played down the significance of the delays, saying that “nothing will happen until the Saudis are good and ready, and they don’t work to the same schedule that we do. You just have to be patient.”
The current confusion in French-Saudi defense relations was highlighted on Feb. 12, when the French ministry of defense first announced it had signed an initial contract for two Airbus A330MRTT multi-role tanker aircraft, only to backtrack two hours later with a follow-up statement saying that the contract was, in fact, still being negotiated. The defense ministry declined to provide an explanation.
The initial statement said the contract was signed by Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Crown Prince and minister of defense and of aviation, who was visiting Paris. If he leaves Paris without signing any of the contracts currently on hold, it will be a worrying sign, according to sources here.
The tanker contract with Airbus is only one of several under negotiation with France since July, when the two countries signed a framework security agreement which was to be followed by Saudi purchase of French weapons initially worth more than 7 billion euros. The first contracts, for 2-3 tanker aircraft and for 42 Eurocopter Fennec light helicopters, were originally due to be signed in the early autumn.
They were to have been followed by contracts for 64 NH-90 battlefield helicopters (10 NFH-90 naval helicopters, 42 TTH-90s for the Saudi Army and 12 more for the National Guard), 20 Eurocopter Cougar utility helicopters in Combat Search and Rescue version; four Eurocopter Panther naval Search and Rescue helicopters; and an initial batch of 12 Tiger attack helicopters for the National Guard. In addition to the weapons, the contracts also are to include the provision of weapons, spare parts, training services and support equipment, as well as the construction of several helicopter bases.
As late as October, technical specifications had been agreed for the Fennec, NFH-90 and Cougar helicopters, leaving only cost and contract details to be worked out, matters that on past French experience can be ironed out in a couple of months if the Saudis want to.
However, none of these contracts has yet been signed, and Saudi Arabia has not given any indication of why it is holding off, nor when the contracts might in fact be signed. In the Fall, Saudi officials were saying that contract signature had been pushed back until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but this passed several months ago with no progress and no plausible explanation for the delay.
It is worth noting that, since announcing several large contracts in July 2005, Saudi Arabia seems to have eased its appetite for military modernisation deals, and that France is not the only supplier to suffer contract delays.
In July, the Pentagon notified Congress of the possible sale to Saudi Arabia of military equipment valued at $11.2 billion, including 58 M-1 Abrams tanks and the upgrade of 315 others ($2.9 billion); upgrade of 12 AH-64A Apache attack helicopters to AH-64D Apache Longbow standard ($400 million); 724 Light Armored Vehicles ($5.8 billion); 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters ($350 million); and armored vehicle spare parts ($276 million). In November, the Pentagon also notified Congress of the possible sale of $1.5 billion’s worth of jet engines for retrofit to the Royal Saudi Air Force’s F-15S fleet. To date, however, none of these notifications has been followed by a contract.
Even Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 48 (or 72 – sources vary on the exact number) Eurofighter combat aircraft, first revealed in December 2005 and reaffirmed in August 2006 in somewhat ambiguous terms, has not yet been confirmed by a formal announcement. However, Britain’s decision in December to halt an investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia has no doubt lifted the remaining obstacle to the contract’s signature, and an announcement is to be expected shortly.