France faces potential embarrassment over its Rafale warplane after a US classified document published by the WikiLeaks website said a Gulf Arab leader agreed that it was “yesterday’s technology”.
The remark reportedly came in a Nov. 1, 2009, conversation between Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and General David Petraeus, who was then in charge of US Central Command, according to a US embassy cable published on the website.
Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the plane, said it had no immediate comment.
According to the document, King Hamad asked Petraeus for his help in encouraging US aircraft manufacturers to participate in Bahrain’s first air show scheduled for January 2010, Reuters reports.
“He said that France was pushing the Rafale and would be there in force, although he agreed with Petraeus that the French fighter was yesterday’s technology,” according to an account filed by the US ambassador in Bahrain’s capital Manama.
The tiny island kingdom is one of several Gulf countries seeking to renew their fleets in a regional arms race prompted in part by tensions with Iran, according to military analysts. Bahrain mainly buys weapons from the United States and is not considered to be the most promising market for the Rafale. But the comments are the latest in a series of setbacks for manufacturer Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA) as it tries to export the plane.
In 2007, France’s then defence minister caused a domestic row for quite different reasons when he criticised the plane as “too sophisticated” for export.
The United Arab Emirates has pressed for the aircraft’s engines to be upgraded with extra thrust, but industry sources say negotiations with France over the plane have stalled as it requests technical information on the Boeing F/A-18. France is also in negotiations to sell the Rafale to Kuwait, a senior French official said earlier this month.
The United States provided three quarters of the arms delivered to Bahrain between 2006 and 2009 and all arms ordered during that period, according to a U.S. Congressional report.
The Royal Bahraini Air Force operates Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets, delivered from the 1990s. At the January air show, Bahrain ordered Blackhawk helicopters from US manufacturer Sikorsky. The diplomatic cable also sheds light, albeit through a neighbour’s perspective as distilled by a US official, on an intense sales drive to sell French nuclear power reactors.
It says the Bahraini king warmed to the subject of French commercial diplomacy and told Petraeus the United Arab Emirates would give French President Nicolas Sarkozy a “hard time soon” over a proposed deal for nuclear power reactors.
A month after the reported conversation, the UAE chose a South Korean group to build reactors over a group of French firms including reactor maker Areva.
Analysts at the time blamed the price of the contract, but France’s economy minister, Christine Lagarde, told a French newspaper after the decision, “This was not simply a question of cost. The French offer was probably not the best calibrated.”
France said on Monday it would stand by the United States over the leaks, which it called a threat to democratic sovereignty.