Saudi Arabia has asked the UK, Japan and Italy to be full partners 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 develop new fighter jets and other systems such as drones under the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), also known as Tempest. The program aims to deliver the first planes in 2035, a tight turnaround.
Adding Saudi Arabia to the program would be attractive for the partners because of the potential to share billions of pounds in the cost of one of the world’s biggest defense spenders, but could create tensions between them.
It could also add to the already complex negotiations involving three governments and many companies from each country. In the UK the leading manufacturers are engine maker Rolls-Royce; the tank and aircraft manufacturer BAE Systems, which has a large business in Saudi Arabia; and the UK arms of Italy’s Leonardo and European missile maker MBDA.
The addition of Saudi Arabia is likely to prove controversial due to criticism of its human rights record, including its involvement in the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The killing led to the country and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, being briefly frozen out of international deals, but criticism has since subsided.
Within the trio of GCAP partners, the UK is understood to be leading the effort to add Saudi Arabia. However, Japanese officials have expressed strong opposition to Saudi involvement, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the request. Japan has gradually removed arms export controls that are part of the legacy of pacifism after the second world war.
A senior UK defense source said: “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s strategic partners and UK defense is keen to deepen the work of the GCAP. We see Saudi Arabia as an important partner in the fighter program and we are working to ensure stable progress as soon as possible.
Saudi Arabia has been eyeing Tempest for a long time. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK in March that said the countries would conduct a “partnership feasibility study” to look at future air combat cooperation and closer collaboration industry. Its defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, tweeted that the deal meant the country would join the international jet effort, only for the UK to quickly say it was a separate deal.
It is believed that talks on formal involvement with Saudi Arabia are still at a relatively early stage, and are being handled by the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Any formal agreement will require the signature of the prime minister.
Saudi Arabia has recently tried to make itself less dependent on the US for its weapons and is trying to build a domestic arms industry, said a Middle East analyst.
On Monday the kingdom signed an agreement with Turkish defense company Baykar Tech to produce drones – which play a key role in Ukraine’s defense against Russia – in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia will spend the equivalent of 6.6% of its GDP on the military in 2021, compared to 2.2% for the UK, 1.5% for Italy and 1.1% for Japan, according to the World Bank.