UAE close to decision over UK, French fighters

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A BAE Systems Eurofighter aircraft shown during the Dubai Airshow.

A BAE Systems Eurofighter aircraft shown during the Dubai Airshow.

The UAE is close to deciding whether to buy British or French fighter jets, after nearly five years of talks and numerous diplomatic visits.

French firm Dassault's Rafales jets and the BAE Systems-backed Eurofighter Typhoon are in a closely-contested race to win the deal for at least 60 new aircraft to replace the UAE's Mirage fleet.

"It's still an open field and a decision will be made in a short period of time," UAE military spokesman Obeid Al Ketbi said at a defence show press conference said this week.

It was the first official comment from the UAE since Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who is also deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, called Dassault's terms "uncompetitive and unworkable" in December 2011.

In talks for the sale since 2008, the comments were a blow to Dassault and opened the door to the Eurofighter.

But the French firm's star may be rising. Trailed by nearly 100 staff and reporters, Sheikh Mohammed visited the Dassault chalet at the biennial defence show to talk with French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and then had lunch with him public.

Sheikh Mohammed went next to the UK pavilion but it was a far shorter visit for the Eurofighter hopefuls although he spoke at length with British Defence Equipment Minister Philip Dunne.

Le Drian confirmed this week that negotiations on the jet sale had restarted.

Both French President Francios Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron have been in the Gulf Arab state in recent months to push their respective jets.

"We believe that our approach to the UAE through the UK government is a realistic approach and we hope it can come to a positive conclusion," Enzo Casolini, Eurofighter's chief executive, said in Abu Dhabi this week.

The British are offering industry participation. A metal piece that links the fighter's engine to the fuselage is being manufactured in the UAE. The Typhoon is developed by a consortium of BAE, Finmeccanica and EADS.

"Making a deal with Eurofighter means you would have three corporate companies which are the biggest in Europe. This is a huge opportunity for industrial participation," said Casolini.

Industry experts and firms who have done business with the UAE say it may wait to see which manufacturers land US$11bn in fighter jet deals with Brazil and South Korea, expected in the first half of this year, before making their own call.

Saudi Arabia and Oman both have orders for Typhoons while Dassault is striving to ink a first sale for the Rafales. Both fighter jets waged combat missions in Libya in 2011.

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