DOHA (Reuters) - France and Qatar signed a 6.3 billion euro ($7.02 billion) deal on Monday for the sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets, an accord President Francois Hollande hailed as a mark of Gulf Arab regard for French regional strategy including its firm line on Iran.
The contract - the third this year for Dassault AVMD.PA after deals to sell Rafale jets to Egypt and India - also includes MBDA missiles, and the training of 36 Qatari pilots and 100 technicians by the French military.
Officials said the accord signed by Hollande and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani also provided for the training of a number of Qatari intelligence officers.
“It’s a good choice,” said Hollande, who was due to go on later to Saudi Arabia, where he is to attend a summit on Tuesday of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh.
“If we are present here in Qatar and the region it is because France is considered a reliable country which a partner country can give their confidence to,” he said, adding that French ‘credibility’ in the region helped with Rafale sales.
Hollande cited major power talks over Iran’s nuclear program, in which Paris has pursued a tough stance with Tehran, the main regional rival of Gulf Arab states, as an example of France’s reliability in the region.
“We will be vigilant so that this accord truly guarantees that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. For all these reasons I’ve been invited to the GCC summit. It’s a mark of confidence ... that France is there for its allies when it is called upon.”
France, a U.N. Security Council veto-holder, has held out for strict terms on Iran in any deal to ease sanctions on Tehran in return for monitoring and curbs on its nuclear program.
Hollande said there could be options for further sales of the plane in Qatar. Dassault is also in talks aimed at supplying 16 of the multi-role combat jets to Malaysia and has resumed discussions over potential fighter sales to another Gulf Arab state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Highlighting the possibilities in the region, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian flew to Abu Dhabi on Saturday ahead of the Qatar signing ceremony.
Le Drian, seen as the architect of Rafale’s recent successes, met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed for an hour to discuss the jets, two years after talks with the UAE on the warplanes stalled.
The discussions went well, two diplomatic sources said, with one adding that negotiations were in an “active phase”.
One official close to the talks said the flurry of sales meant that things now favored the seller. “If they want the plane quickly, they will have to pay more for it,” he said.
Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier told reporters Kuwait was also evaluating the plane. The Qatar sale was “a good sign for all the countries of the region” because now they would see the capabilities of the aircraft, he said.
“It’s a little bit the snowball effect — except it’s in the desert,” he said.
Reporting by John Irish, Editing by William Maclean