The defence industry supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK. A large portion of these jobs are dependent on the UK’s strong position as one of the world’s largest defence exporters. Saudi Arabia is by some distance the UK’s largest customer, buying over £10bn worth of defence equipment over the last decade.
The UK has played an important role in developing the Royal Saudi Air Force, dating back to the Al Yamamah deal in 1985 which saw the UK supply Tornado jets and Hawk trainer aircraft. In 2007, Saudi Arabia purchased 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from the UK, and a suspended deal struck in 2018 for a further 48 Typhoons appears to be back on track following reports that Germany is set to lift its veto on the sale.
In March this year, the UK and Saudi Arabia signed a new agreement which committed to studying future cooperation on combat air capabilities. While it wasn’t clear at the time precisely what the scope of this study was, it has been reported in recent days that Saudi Arabia is pushing to join Team Tempest – the coalition of UK, Italy and Japan developing a sixth-generation fighter jet. With the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, set to visit the UK this Autumn, speculation is growing that an agreement may be close.
If the Saudis get their wish, it would represent a significant deepening of the Kingdom’s defence relationship with the UK. Far more than a lucrative export market, Saudi Arabia would become one of the UK’s most important strategic partners, inextricably linked on the project critical to sustaining the UK’s world-leading combat air sector for many decades to come.
That Saudi Arabia is seeking to join the alliance as a full partner is itself a sign of the Kingdom’s increasing geopolitical might and industrial ambition. Riyadh is investing billions to develop a domestic arms industry in the hope of evolving the Kingdom from one of the world’s largest defence importers into an exporter. In December 2022, the Kingdom agreed a joint venture with Spanish shipbuilder Navatia to build warships in Saudi shipyards. Joining Team Tempest as a full partner would be seen as another major step towards developing a domestic military-industrial sector.
For existing members of Team Tempest, the benefits of injecting Saudi Arabian wealth into the project are clear. While the Kingdom’s technological offer is limited, its financial contribution would be vast. The attraction of splitting the costs of a project certain to cost well into the tens of billions of pounds cannot be overstated.
The financial stability offered by Saudi involvement may help the project steal a march on the French-German-Spanish (FCAS) project for a next-generation fighter jet. Sharing the high costs of development will also enhance the jet’s export marketability in what is sure to be a highly competitive sixth-generation marketplace in both Europe and Asia.
But there are profound risks which would come with Saudi joining Team Tempest. From a political perspective, it would prove highly controversial given Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record, its military actions in Yemen, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi which drew international condemnation. Adding a fourth and highly controversial partner may complicate the decision-making process, potentially delaying the project.
There are also security concerns. Saudi Arabia would no longer be a customer buying the end product from Western allies, but a full partner involved at every stage of the development process with access to all the highly sensitive information and technologies which go along with that.
The Kingdom’s increasingly warm relationship with China will inevitably give rise to concerns that Tempest’s technology could find its way to Beijing, itself a participant in the race to develop a sixth-generation fighter and determined to join the US, the UK, France and Russia in the elite group of nations able to independently design and build jet engines.
Chief among those with concerns about China accessing sensitive information will be Japan, which has traditionally been highly protective over its military technology and only recently loosened its stringent ban on arms exports.
It remains to be seen if the UK and Italy, reported to be tentatively supportive of Saudi Arabia joining Team Tempest, will be able to assuage Japan’s concerns. But what is clear is that Saudi Arabia now wants far deeper relationships with its defence partners than Western allies have become accustomed to. The Kingdom’s days as a mere customer of defence equipment are gone.
While the UK may see this as an opportunity to leverage Saudi wealth to secure our defence industry for decades to come, full Saudi partnership in a landmark project such as Team Tempest raises geopolitical and security concerns which cannot be ignored.
The question leaders in London, Rome and Tokyo will have to answer in the coming months is whether the rewards outweigh the risks.