Emmanuel Macron's recent whirlwind trip to three Gulf countries has served the French president to remove the thorn in his side for having been snubbed three months ago from the AUKUS alliance and for the failed sale to the Australian government of 12 submarines. He did so after a two-day trip, after which he returned to Paris with several cheque books in his jacket pockets worth around 24 billion euros.
The above paragraph is the terse summary of a three-stage tour against the clock, in which the Emperor of the French Republic has pedalled at the head of his peloton of ministers and senior political and business officials, riding at high speed from the Elysée Palace to the Union of Arab Emirates, from there to nearby Qatar and then on to Saudi Arabia... and back to Paris.
His presence of just a few hours in each of the three Gulf countries had an obvious economic overtone: sealing the sale of a very respectable number of fighter jets and helicopters. With the contracts initialled, Emmanuel Macron has filled the order books and coffers of his aeronautical and defence companies and secured thousands of new jobs in both sectors, which serves as a banner for him to try to get through the first round of the general elections announced for 10 April 2022.
Without neglecting Paris's political will to strengthen its presence and influence in the region, Emmanuel Macron's short but intense stay in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has led to the sale of 80 fighter jets, 38 helicopters... and much more. The end result is a rainfall of many billions, which will irrigate the extensive aeronautical and military industrial fabric of the Hexagon.
More than 400 large, medium and small French companies make up the supply chain for the Dassault Aviation aircraft and Airbus helicopters purchased by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This is a huge package of weapon system sales, which means that French arms exports in 2021 will reach an all-time high.
The first stop on Macron's tour was the Emirates. In Dubai, he met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and second-in-command of the Emirati armed forces, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The two leaders witnessed how the UAF has confirmed the purchase of 80 Rafale fighter jets from the French manufacturer Dassault, a contract worth some 14 billion euros. To this amount must be added another 2 billion for the purchase of a large batch of cruise, air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles supplied by the French branch of the MBDA missile consortium.
In the case of the Rafale, the responsibility for making the 80 fighter aircraft a reality falls under the baton of Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault, the prime contractor and responsible for the integration of all the aircraft's systems. One of the major beneficiaries is Thales, which is supplying the new RBE2 AESA radars, the on-board electronics, such as the vision system integrated into the hull, and the Spectra electronic warfare system to protect against missile attack.
Also the engine supplier Safran, which provides the powerful M-88 engines, the landing gear, the ejection seats for the pilots, the inertial navigation systems and even the kilometre-long and critical electrical wiring that connects the entire aircraft. MBDA France is equipping it with its new MICA NG air-to-air missiles with infrared, electromagnetic and other homing systems.
But will the 80 Rafale arrive soon in the hands of the Emirates? Far from it. The configuration chosen by the UAE Air Force is the F4, which has been under development since 2019 and whose flight tests began in April this year. It is a version whose first units have been contracted by the French Air Force, which will incorporate them into its fighter squadrons between 2023 and 2027. That is why delivery to Emirates will not begin until 2027, ensuring the sustainability of the production line at Dassault until 2031.
Emirates completes its orders with the purchase of a dozen Airbus H225M Caracal helicopters for an estimated 750 to 800 million euros. These aircraft are specialised in penetration and combat rescue operations, with in-flight refuelling capability, in a configuration very similar to that required by the French Armed Forces.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the French President met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the city of Jeddah. During his short stay, Macron was delighted to see Airbus Helicopters confirm a contract to supply 26 civilian helicopters - 20 of the H145 and six of the H160 - to the Saudi operator The Helicopter Company (THC), the official company that exclusively operates commercial helicopter services in the Kingdom.
The two also witnessed the Saudi Arabian state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) consortium reach agreements with French companies to create joint ventures. With the Airbus consortium, a company dedicated to the maintenance of military aircraft was created. With the Figeac Aéro industrial group, a plant for the production of high-precision aluminium and titanium parts for aerostructures was set up. In both cases, SAMI has a majority shareholding.
Finally, Saudi Arabian Airlines placed an order for 149 CFM LEAP-1A engines to equip its new fleet of 35 new A321neo and 30 A320neo passenger aircraft. It includes their maintenance and that of the engines of another 20 A320neo on lease, all of which adds up to nearly 7.5 billion euros.
The dark spot of the tour was Qatar. In his meeting with Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emmanuel Macron made an ill-fated last-ditch effort to try to get Akbar al-Baker, CEO of state-owned Qatar Airways, and his Airbus equivalent, Guillaume Faury, to reach an agreement in their already long and bitter standoff.
Less than a year before the Gulf state hosts the World Cup, Qatar Airways and European aerospace giant Airbus are locked in a tense dispute over the accelerated degradation of the airframe of the airline's A350 aircraft, an anomaly that has been discovered underneath the paint layer.
The dispute has prompted Airbus to go to independent arbitration to resolve the disagreement. The airline does not accept the technical solutions put forward by the manufacturer and is grounding 20 A350 aircraft, has suspended the delivery of A350s it has purchased until the problem is resolved, and has opted for American Boeing 777 aircraft rather than a similar Airbus model in its next acquisitions.