The United Arab Emirates (UAE) last week confirmed its interest in purchasing one of two French warships that have been left adrift after a deal to sell them to Russia fell apart.
Russia ordered the two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in 2011, but the deal dissolved in slow motion after Western sanctions were imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its role in Ukraine's eastern conflict. The situation made the contract politically difficult for France to fulfill, and French President François Hollande ultimately determined that it was "not possible in the current context."
If a deal with the UAE is reached, it would be yet another expansion of the French arms industry's relationship with regional powers in the Persian Gulf. As Middle Eastern and Gulf states look to develop their militaries, France has been eager to supply them with weapons. Amid a boom in its exportation of defense technology, France has secured hefty contracts with the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia for major equipment, such as Rafale fighter jets and utility helicopters.
In 2014, France secured $9.1 billion in arms exports — its highest level since 2009. This year, it has signed $12 billion in contracts with Saudi Arabia alone. This follows a 2014 deal with Riyadh for $3 billion worth of arms and equipment for the Lebanese army to bolster its defenses against the destabilizing conflict in neighboring Syria.
More than simply an economic boon, these major deals with Middle Eastern countries (and, elsewhere, with Poland and Malaysia) make for complex international politics — full of nationalism, opportunism, and moral compromise.
"Obama was the best salesman of the Rafale," an unnamed diplomat told Le Monde, in reference to deals for the jets that France struck with Qatar and Egypt. The administration's pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran has led to a cooling of attitudes among some regional allies toward the United States, and Gulf countries have consequently been looking beyond American suppliers. The negotiations with Iran had tempered US-Saudi relations in particular, though the two countries are reportedly close to sealing a deal on two Lockheed Martin warships for the kingdom.
"That leaves the door open for alternate suppliers, so France has played that card," said Dr. Aude Fleurant, who is the arms and military expenditures program director at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The French state owns shares of major defense companies like Airbus, Thales Group, and the Mistral manufacturer DCNS. Hollande, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have routinely visited clients of the French defense industry. Hollande addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in Riyadh in May — a month before the contracts with the Saudi monarchy were announced — making him the first Western leader ever to attend the conference.
"You can explain part of the French position on the Iran deal by this relationship," said Yannick Quéau, the director general of Open Source Intelligence on Politics. "France really favors Saudi Arabia, and shares strong concerns about the Iran deal."
Signing massive contracts for sizable defense equipment purchases can help establish lengthy relationships between nations. France's use of defense exports to build alliances with Saudi Arabia and others over the past two years is in keeping with its long-term view on policy. The French government "has long seen arms exports as a big part of its foreign policy identity," said Dr. Jennifer Erickson of Boston College. "So it's very much built into how France sees itself, how it promotes itself in the world."
France also maintains a diverse production capacity. While the United Kingdom has lapsed somewhat in this regard, France has maintained a high-level of production of military equipment for land, air, and sea defense — an expensive approach that relies on the export of arms and technology.
This export is not just a matter of international politics, but of domestic economic growth.
"That's another reason why France is actually looking at Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt, Singapore, Australia," Fleurant noted. "Everybody currently buying major weapons systems — ships, combat aircraft, anything — France will be there. Part of this is also the survival of its national defense industry."
The achievements of French defense companies over recent years have been celebrated domestically. The successful sale by Dassault Aviation of 24 Rafale fighter jets to Egypt earlier this year was hailed in France as an export achievement of the highest order. Officials claim that arms sales so far for 2015 have created around 30,000 jobs in France.
France sees "the arms industry as a big way to support employment and industrialization in the country," Erickson said. Hatching deals for major defense equipment can also open doors and lead to broader commerce relationships that France hopes to develop.
France's involvement with the Kremlin over the Mistrals and the drama that followed Russia's annexation of Crimea highlight the risks of engaging in deals with troublesome buyers. France might even be hesitant to further exacerbate tensions with Russia by selecting a buyer for the Mistrals whose choice would be seen as a direct challenge or insult to Russia's government.
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The prioritization of military production generally pushes other concerns further down the list, to the chagrin of human rights defenders. Erickson said that France has struggled with how to be a "reliable supplier but also a responsible exporter." Providing expensive military equipment to regimes accused of torture and repressive practices is questionable, but France has chosen to largely ignore such obstacles.
"France at the moment [does] not care at all about human rights when it comes to this," Quéau said.
Criticism of the sale of two dozen Rafale fighter jets to Egypt, which also included a frigate and missiles, was rebuffed by talk of the shared battle against terrorism and the need for security. Hollande announced solidarity with an Egypt threatened by the Islamic State and the fragmentation of neighboring Libya, while Fabius minimized the failings of the Sisi government. Egypt's need for stability and security was a major public relations theme surrounding their acquisition of the fighter jets, with both Le Drian and his counterpart, Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi, emphasizing the two countries' shared struggle with terrorism at the contract-signing ceremony in Cairo.
"Libya is just the other side of the Mediterranean, very close to us," Le Drian said. "We must be very vigilant and ally ourselves with coalition countries like Egypt."
France has further defended arms sales to the region by affirming that it will continue to criticize human rights abuses by the countries they sell to. Fabius noted as much after the sale of the Rafales to Egypt.
"Just because we are selling these Rafales to Egypt doesn't mean we agree with every point in their domestic policy," he said. "When there are excesses that are committed, we tell the Egyptian authorities — from our point of view — and we are hoping to move step by step towards more democracy. But the stability of Egypt is a very important point."
Rafale fighter jets aren't used for riot control, so France seems comforted by the fact that it is unlikely that Egypt would use French-supplied equipment to commit human rights abuses. But fighter jets, FREMM multipurpose frigates, and Caracal helicopters are all intended for military use, and supplying them by the dozens to Gulf countries has consequences beyond the forging of alliances and big payouts. Conventional arms control in the region is negligible, while the pressure to stamp out dissent and quell militancy is at a peak.
The five biggest arms buyers in the region are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq. This year, their purchases have grown bigger and bolder, having climbed from $12 billion last year to more than $18 billion.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are central to the battle against the Islamic State, and this makes them valuable long-term allies to countries like France, which has itself been struggling with vulnerability to terrorism.
France's security concerns, international aspirations, and domestic economic pressures have converged to incentivize bold deals with partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Defense exports are rapidly growing, not just as a matter of trade but as a matter of French foreign policy. As opportunities open in the Gulf, France is seizing on the chance for strong relationships — even if they happen to be with questionable allies.