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By Tim Hepher
DUBAI, Nov 11 (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is in the final stages of negotiations to buy French Rafale fighter jets, the head of the Gulf nation’s air force told Reuters on Wednesday.
Abu Dhabi, which is looking to purchase 60 fighters worth an estimated $10 billion, is studying the Dassault-built Rafale after rejecting the four-nation Eurofighter.
“I think we are in the final stage of negotiations,” Major General Ibrahim Nasser Al Alawi, commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defence, said in an interview at the Dubai Airshow when asked how close the UAE was to a deal to buy the Rafale.
In Paris, the French defence ministry declined to comment and Dassault Aviation was not immediately available.
After failing for years to win an order for its warplane, France has sold 24 Rafales each to Egypt and Qatar in recent months and is in talks to finalise the sale of another 36 to India.
France is said to be confident of winning two more foreign orders by the beginning of next year as it seeks to extend the string of multi-billion-dollar deals.
Talks with Dassault to replace the company’s Mirage 2000-9 jets stalled in 2011 when the UAE publicly called its proposals “unworkable”.
But the Rafale re-emerged as the front-runner last year after the Eurofighter, built by Europe’s Airbus Group, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Finmeccanica , failed to make the cut.
Formally, the UAE is in talks with France to set out the fighter’s capabilities, the same stage reached by the competing Eurofighter before it was rejected.
But Al Alawi indicated the Rafale deal was unlikely to fall at the same hurdle, while stressing no decision had been taken.
“I think we are past that stage; I think it is to procure. If it suits us from a performance, delivery schedule and price (point of view) then nobody says no to a good deal.”
The recent spate of Rafale export orders has shaken up the global defence market and given fresh momentum to the French warplane as available production slots begin to dwindle.
Analysts and diplomats say the appetite for the jets has also risen as a result of the United States’ diminishing influence in the Arab world along with wider security concerns fuelled by the rise of Islamic State. (Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Potter)