States across the Middle East are ordering large numbers of the best 4.5-generation fighter jets the United States and Europe have on the market. Recent orders unequivocally demonstrate how the proliferation of advanced weaponry into that volatile region continues unabated. Forbes reports that of course, the sale by Western countries of highly advanced fighters to the Middle East, especially the Gulf Arab countries, is nothing new. In the late 1990s, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ordered 80 F-16 Block 60 jets, a more advanced variant of the F-16 than flown by the U.S. Air Force.
In 2010, the Obama administration authorized the sale of 84 advanced F-15s to Saudi Arabia as part of a record $60 billion deal. The Trump administration pushed for even more stupendous arms sales to the region. It made a deal to sell the UAE 50 fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters and 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones for $23 billion.
Abu Dhabi suspended discussions on the deal in December 2021, citing “technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions and cost-benefit analysis” as the main reasons. If the sale is ultimately canceled, Israel will most likely remain the only operator of the F-35, or any fifth-generation aircraft, in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
Turkey was previously part of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and had plans to buy up to 100 F-35A jets for its air force. However, it was suspended from the program and banned from buying any of those aircraft following its purchase of advanced Russian S-400 air defense missile systems.
Abu Dhabi and Ankara have instead settled for ordering advanced 4.5-generation fighters.
In December 2021, the UAE ordered 80 cutting-edge Dassault Rafale F4 multirole jets from France as part of a landmark $19 billion deal, the largest single order for Rafales ever made.
In October 2021, Turkey requested 40 new F-16 Block 70/72 jets, the latest version of the iconic fighter, along with 80 modernization kits for its existing F-16 fleet. That deal is still pending Washington’s approval.
Meanwhile, Iraq is reportedly ordering at least 14 Rafale jets to bolster its air force’s capabilities. Baghdad may be hoping to acquire the Rafale with the Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) to make up for the limited air-to-air capabilities of its existing F-16 fleet, which did not come equipped with the American equivalent, the AIM-120.
Iraq’s southern neighbor Kuwait is taking delivery of 28 Eurofighter Typhoons from Italy that it ordered in 2016 as part of an $8.7 billion contract. Those Typhoons are the latest Tranche 3 standard equipped with the Captor-E active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
Kuwait is simultaneously taking delivery of 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets built, for the most part, to the latest Block 3 standard, as part of a $2.7 billion deal with the United States.
Even the tiny Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain is receiving 16 brand new F-16 Block 70/72 fighters. It’s also having 20 of its existing F-16 Block 40 jets upgraded to that standard, leaving Manama with a formidable fleet of 36 Vipers. Bahrain was the first Gulf customer for the F-16 and the first country to acquire the modernized Block 70 variant.
In early 2022, the Kingdom of Jordan ordered at least eight F-16 Block 70 jets. Amman may gradually update its older F-16s, the backbone of its fighter fleet, in the future as well.
But none of these acquisitions can hold a candle to those made by the peninsular sheikdom of Qatar. Doha long had one of the least significant air forces in the Gulf region, consisting of little more than 12 French Dassault Mirage 2000s and six Alpha light attack jets. That began to change in the last decade, especially after its neighbors subjected it to a blockade in 2017. In recent years Qatar has ordered a whopping 96 of the most advanced 4.5-generation fighters from three different Western countries. These orders included 36 highly-advanced F-15QA (Qatar Standard) fighters from the United States, 36 Rafales from France, and 24 Eurofighters from the United Kingdom.
Egypt has significantly built up its air force over the past seven years, beginning with its landmark purchase of 24 Rafales in a deal that made Cairo the first foreign buyer of that premier French jet. Cairo was satisfied with the Rafale, as evidenced by its ordering of 30 more in 2021. Around the same period, Egypt also bought 46 MiG-29M/M2 fighters from Russia. In 2018, it also ordered the more advanced Su-35 Flanker-E jets. The status of the latter order remains unclear, with strong indications that Cairo is unsatisfied with the quality of these Russian fighters given their lack of AESA radars. Earlier this year, the United States revealed it was open to selling Egypt F-15s for the first time, which could significantly enhance Egypt’s large air force, especially if they come armed with the AIM-120 Cairo has long sought.