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On a visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) from 28 February to 2 March 2023 UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace signed a statement of Intent (SoI) with his Saudi counterpart, HRH Prince Khalid bin Salman, that included a focus on future combat air capabilities, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 2 March.

Reaffirming the United Kingdom’s commitment to work with Saudi Arabia on enhancing the two countries’ bilateral relationship in support of stability and security in the Gulf region, Wallace declared that the SoI “will strengthen our Saudi-UK combat air relationship and our ability to address shared security challenges for decades to come, supporting Saudi Vision 2030 aspirations”.

There was initial confusion over the nature of the agreement after a 1 March statement on Twitter by Prince Khalid appeared to signal Saudi intent to participate in the UK-led Future Combat Air System (FCAS)/Tempest programme, although the UK MoD confirmed to ESD on 2 March that this was not, in fact, the case.

The UK and Saudi Arabia have signed a SoI on their future combat air relationship, although time will tell if this involves Saudi acquisition of the Tempest future-generation fighter. (Photo: BAE Systems)

However, given that the UK MoD stated that the SoI “will initiate a Partnering Feasibility Study to explore how we can best position our decades-long combat air relationship for the future”, it is difficult to see how Saudi operation of the Tempest future-generation fighter, at least, would not be part of the discussion. Such a move would continue the KSA’s strategic policy of sourcing its combat air fleet from both the United States and the UK. The Royal Saudi Air Force currently operates various models of US-supplied Boeing F-15 Eagles as well as Eurofighter Typhoons and Panavia Tornado IDS aircraft produced by European consortia but acquired via the UK.

The FCAS/Tempest programme was initially UK led, but under an agreement signed on 9 December 2002 both Italy and Japan were cemented as partners in what is now known as the Global Combat Air Programme.

Any future Saudi undertaking to acquire the Tempest next-generation fighter would further underwrite the programme.

During his visit Wallace also expressed his gratitude to Saudi Arabia following the Kingdom’s recent commitment of USD 410 M in aid for Ukraine, announced during a recent visit to Kyiv by Saudi Foreign Minister HH Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud.

Peter Felstead