Saudis ask to join UK, Italy and Japan’s joint air combat programme

Saudi Arabia has asked the UK, Japan and Italy to be made a full partner in their joint effort to build the next generation of fighter jets, in a move backed by the British government.

Companies from the UK, Japan and Italy are working together to build a new fighter jet and other systems such as drones under the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), also known as Tempest. The programme aims to deliver the first planes by 2035, a tight turnaround.

The addition of Saudi Arabia to the programme could be attractive for the partners because of the potential for sharing the billions of pounds in costs with one of the world’s biggest defence spenders, but may create tensions between them.

It could also add to already complex negotiations involving three governments and several companies from each country. In the UK the lead manufacturers are the engine maker Rolls-Royce; the tank and plane manufacturer BAE Systems, which has a significant-sized business in Saudi Arabia; and the UK arms of Italy’s Leonardo and the European missile-maker MBDA.

Adding Saudi Arabia would probably prove controversial because of criticisms of its record on human rights, including its involvement in the war in Yemen and the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The murder led to the country and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, briefly being frozen out of international deals, but censure has since faded.

Within the trio of GCAP partners, the UK is understood to be leading the effort to add Saudi Arabia. However, Japanese officials have expressed firm opposition to the Saudis joining, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the request. Japan has been slowly loosening controls on weapons exports that were part of its legacy of pacifism after the second world war.

A senior UK defence source said: “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s strategic partnerships and UK defence is keen to deepen work on GCAP. We see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the fighter programme and we are working to ensure strong progress as soon as possible.”

Saudi Arabia has had its eye on joining Tempest for some time. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK in March saying that the countries would carry out a “partnering feasibility study” to look at a future combat air partnership and closer industrial collaboration. Its defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, tweeted that the deal meant the country would join the international jet effort, only for the UK to hurriedly say it was a separate agreement.

It is thought that the talks on Saudi Arabia joining formally are still at a relatively early stage, and are being handled in the UK by the Ministry of Defence. Any formal agreement would require the prime minister’s signoff.

Saudi Arabia has recently tried to make itself less reliant on the US for its weaponry and is trying to build up a domestic weapons industry, said one Middle East analyst.

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On Monday the kingdom signed a deal with Turkish defence firm Baykar Tech to manufacture drones – which have played a prominent role in Ukraine’s defence against Russia – in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia spent the equivalent of 6.6% of its GDP on its military in 2021, compared with 2.2% for the UK, 1.5% for Italy and 1.1% for Japan, according to the World Bank.


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