Spain edges closer to tank sale to Saudis
Spain and Saudi Arabia edge closer to a three-billion-dollar deal for the sale of Madrid's Leopard tanks on Monday with talks between a Saudi defence official and officials here.
Prince Khaled bin Sultan, Saudi's assistant defence minister, was to meet King Juan Carlos after his arrival in Madrid late Monday, and follow up with talks with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Tuesday.
The daily El Pais said last week that the talks could crown Spain's biggest-ever military export deal, a three-billion-dollar contract to sell Spanish battle tanks to the Saudis.
Prince Khaled is making the trip in place of his father, Saudi Defence Minister and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, who diplomats say is unwell.
Saudi Arabia, which along with Iran and Israel is the main military power in the Middle East, is currently in the throes of modernising its armed forces.
There was no official confirmation of a deal from the government in Madrid, but a defence industry union official told AFP there was a possibility of a deal on the tanks.
"There is no contract yet....The acquisition of combat tanks is a possibility," said Raul Alvarez, who is in charge of the defence industry sector of the major Comisiones Obreras union.
Alvarez said any sale could involve around 200 tanks.
According to El Pais, a contract being prepared will lead to the sale of "200-270 Leopard 2E combat tanks" a variant of Germany's Leopard adapted by the Spanish army and built in Spain by General Dynamics-Santa Barbara.
Initial discussions on the sale were reportedly held during a visit by Juan Carlos to Saudi Arabia in 2008. The first 50 tanks could be delivered next year.
El Pais underlined however that the signature of the contract would be conditional on a green light from Germany's Kraus-Maffei and Rheinmetall group, which holds the patents for the Leopard.
The likely sale comes as the desert kingdom, a key US ally in the Middle East, is seeking to update its military hardware to compete with Iran, and to rectify the weaknesses apparent during the recent offensive against Shiite rebels on its border with Yemen.
Washington announced a 60-billion-dollar contract last month to sell planes and helicopters to Riyadh.
The Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Spain in 2008, which up to now has mainly been limited to training Saudi pilots on the Eurofighter at its southern Moron air base.
© 2010 AFP