France's Dassault Aviation is seeking unacceptable terms for the sale of up to 60 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, a senior Emirati military official said Wednesday, casting serious doubt on the future of the highly anticipated arms deal.
The comments from the deputy supreme commander of the UAE's armed forces, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, come just days after a different European defense firm unexpectedly said it had been asked by the Emirati air force to assemble a rival fighter bid.
Dassault has been in talks with the UAE for years in an effort to sell the Rafale, which is currently used only by France. Dassault has marketed the twin-engine plane to several countries but has yet to find an overseas buyer.
Sheik Mohammed is also the highly influential crown prince of the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, and his criticism Wednesday could signal a final blow to Dassault's UAE bid.
He noted French President Nicolas Sarkozy's active role in trying to advance the sale, saying Paris did all it could diplomatically to try to close the deal.
"Bilateral relations have never been stronger and his constant personal intervention in this process has sustained Dassault at the forefront of our considerations," Sheik Mohammed said in a statement carried by the official news agency WAM.
"Regrettably Dassault seems unaware that all the diplomatic and political will in the world cannot overcome uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms," he added.
Dassault did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
France has sought to strengthen military and trade ties to the UAE, a seven state oil-rich federation closely allied to the West.
In May 2009, Sarkozy opened France's first Persian Gulf military base in Abu Dhabi. It is France's first major foreign military installation since the 1960s and its first outside Africa.
On Sunday, the European defense consortium Eurofighter said it has been asked by the UAE air force to assemble a bid to potentially supply it with Typhoon fighter jets. The request follows preliminary discussions on the fighter that took place with British government officials last month, Eurofighter said.
Eurofighter says it is working hard to respond to the request. The consortium includes British, German, Italian and Spanish aerospace firms.
Both the Typhoon and Rafale saw action in NATO's mission over Libya. The UAE was among the most active Arab members in that campaign, deploying six of its F-16s and six Mirage fighters.
Emirati officials got another chance to compare the Rafale and Typhoon this week at the Dubai Airshow. Both planes performed in aerial flight demonstrations, as did American-made F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 fighters.
The UAE has also reportedly expressed interest in buying additional American-made fighters, such as the F/A-18.
Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said Monday that Washington had not received a formal request from the UAE for additional warplanes. But he did not rule out the possibility of F/A-18 sales when asked about it during a visit to Dubai.
"We are in discussions with the UAE about the best way to meet their defense needs, including their desires for fighter aircraft in the future," he said.