Saudi Arabia seeking to join UK, Italy and Japan’s joint air combat programme

Saudi Arabia is lobbying the UK, Italy and Japan to join a partnership that would give it access to their next-generation fighter jet project by offering a “significant financial contribution” to the programme amid concerns with Russian weaponry's performance in Ukraine and frayed US ties.

The UK and Italy are supportive of Saudi Arabia’s bid, but Japan is opposed, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the story on Friday.

Japan, the UK and Italy announced in December they would team up to create a combat jet more advanced than the US’s F-35 and the Eurofighter, with state-of-the-art sensors and technology.

Riyadh’s lobbying efforts have accelerated in recent weeks. In July, the Saudi government made a direct request to Tokyo to join the partnership during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, according to the FT.

In addition to financial assistance, Saudi Arabia has offered to contribute engineering expertise to the project. The three countries aim to deliver the advanced jet by 2035, but Japan is concerned Saudi Arabia’s entry into the group could delay the launch.

Saudi Arabia’s bid to join the group underlines how Riyadh is looking to beef up its domestic defence industry and expand security links outside its alliance with the US, which has historically been the kingdom’s top arms supplier. The US has about $126bn in active arms deals with Saudi Arabia under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.

But Saudi Arabia has been on the hunt for new defence partners amid concerns that the US could limit its access to weaponry over human rights concerns at home and its involvement in the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, however, sees a window of opportunity with the US. It is offering normalised ties to Israel in exchange for deeper security guarantees from Washington, help in developing a civilian nuclear programme, and fewer restrictions on arms sales.

Some in Congress, however, are opposed to more arms sales. In March, Democrat Senator Chris Murphy and Republican Mike Lee introduced a resolution that would require President Joe Biden’s administration to report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and possibly cut off all US security assistance to the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Germany has stymied Saudi Arabia’s attempts to acquire the Eurofighter jet by linking the sale with an end to the Yemen war.

Germany initially halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the killing of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. In July, Berlin loosened some restrictions on weapons sales, but said it would continue to block deliveries of the Eurofighter jet.

Along with regional powers like Turkey and the UAE, Saudi Arabia is making a push to develop its own domestic arms industry, a move that could reduce its reliance on western states conditioning arms sales.

In March 2022, the chief executive of Saudi Arabian Military Industries revealed that the kingdom plans to produce a Saudi-made drone and establish one of the world’s biggest munitions factories. Riyadh has also turned to China for technological assistance.

But the UK, Japan and Italy have raised concerns about how much technological prowess Saudi Arabia could actually bring to the project.

Saudi Arabia’s turn to Europe and Asia for arms also underlines the changing nature of foreign defence ties in the region. For years, Russia has tried to make strides in the Arab Persian Gulf – the Middle East’s most lucrative arms market – but those efforts have been derailed by its poor performance in Ukraine’s war, analysts tell Middle East Eye.

While ties between Riyadh and Washington have come under strain over human rights issues, European NATO countries offer Persian Gulf states an attractive alternative, analysts say.

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