Richard North, 02/10/2005  

Despite French participation in the troubled Eurofighter project, it has long been known that the French government has been keener on promoting its own Rafale fighter (left) than the co-operative European project.

And so it has come to pass, according to The Business that, while the UK is helping to clean up the mess in Iraq – in theory at least – France is capitalising on the unpopularity that brings with the Arab world to "usurp" Britain's leading position as military aircraft supplier to Saudi Arabia.

L'Escroc Chirac has taken it upon himself to act as arms salesman extraordinaire and has had face to face meetings with King Abdullah in order to make his pitch, acting with such haste that he was the first foreign dignitary to visit the desert kingdom after the funeral of King Fahd in August.

At stake are air defence contracts with Saudi Arabia worth up to £40bn to British defence contractor, BAE Systems, which is hoping to upgrade some of its ageing 96 Tornados (right) and also to sell the Eurofighter (below left).

However, the French are pushing Dassault's Rafales, "lobbying hard," according to one senior source, who are hoping that the Saudis will buy up to 80 of their aircraft.

Such are the stakes that Tony Blair even visited Saudi Arabia in July but it has recently been rumoured that talks on Eurofighter sales have stalled over three issues: that Britain should expel two anti-Saudi dissidents, Saad al-Faqih and Mohammed al-Masari; that British Airways should resume flights to Riyadh; and that a corruption investigation implicating the Saudi ruling family and BAE should be dropped.

The Saudis deny they have demanded the return of dissidents in return for aircraft orders and add that BA is no longer welcome in the kingdom – officials regarded the British flag-carrier's decision to pull out of the route as arrogant and BA is unlikely to be able to resume services.

But the Saudis confirm they want to buy more fighter aircraft and if BAE Systems is nervous about paying the customary "commission" to royal intermediaries, undoubtedly the French will have no problems about rushing in to fill the gap.

Still, when we have such esteemed and trusted allies like the French, what's a little thing like a £40 billion aerospace contract?


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