Arms sales becoming France’s new El Dorado, but at what cost?

France’s booming arms trade has proved one of the few bright spots for the country’s struggling economy. But as President François Hollande heads to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, will there be a moral and strategic cost to the deals he might bring back?

A French navy Rafale fighter jet takes off from the aircraft craft carrier Charles de Gaulle operating in the Gulf on February 25, 2015
A French navy Rafale fighter jet takes off from the aircraft craft carrier Charles de Gaulle operating in the Gulf on February 25, 2015 Patrick Baz / AFP

When Qatar agreed to buy 24 French Rafale fighter jets in a €6.3 billion contract at the end of April, it represented yet another major success for France’s arms industry, coming hot on the heels of further multi-billion euro sales of Rafales to Egypt and India.

The deals have been hailed by Hollande and his government. According to France’s Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian, in comments made to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper Sunday, the Qatar contract brought the value of the country’s arms exports to more than €15 billion this year so far.

That sum is already more than the €8.06 billion for the whole of 2014, which itself was the highest level seen since 2009 – suggesting a continued upward trajectory for the French arms trade and one that is providing a much-needed salve to the country’s economic woes.

But some of these deals have raised more than a few eyebrows, with anti-arms trade campaigners critical of France’s willingness to sell weapons to countries with less than stellar human rights records.

These concerns are only set to rise when Hollande heads first to Doha on Monday and then Saudi Arabia's capital of Riyadh the day after, where furthering the recent success of the French arms industry is likely to be one of his top priorities.

Saudi Arabia’s arms spending spree

Saudi Arabia has already proved a lucrative trading partner for French arms manufacturers, most recently in a deal signed in November that saw the kingdom buy $3 billion-worth (€2.7 billion) of French weapons and military equipment to supply the Lebanese army.

The oil-rich country is currently on something of an arms spending spree.

Last year, the Saudis surpassed India to become the world’s biggest arms importer, upping its spending by 54 percent to $6.5 billion (€5.8 billion), according to a report by industry analyst IHS.

France, thanks to some adept diplomatic manoeuvering in recent years, is well placed to take advantage of the Saudi cash cow.

Paris has been an increasingly close ally of Riyadh ever since it was among the most vocal in backing military intervention against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Shiite Iran – one of Sunni Saudi Arabia’s main regional rivals.

The strategic alliance has been boosted by France’s tougher stance on a nuclear deal with Iran than the Saudi’s traditional western partner, the US. Furthermore, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited the kingdom in April to show France's support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

If Hollande can help secure new arms deals with the Saudis, then he could make the sums involved in this year’s earlier successes look like small change.

He may have to overlook certain moral issues to do so, however.

The kingdom, where the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam dominates, is one of the world’s most restrictive and repressive states, where public executions are common practise, women are forbidden from obtaining a passport and blasphemers are punished with whippings.

Adding to Middle East instability

But there could also be a strategic downside.

Experts warn that the influx of arms to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries is worsening tensions in a region already ravaged by conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

"You're seeing political fractures across the region, and at the same time you've got oil, which allows countries to arm themselves, protect themselves and impose their will as to how they think the region should develop,” Ben Moores, author of the IHS report, told AP in March.

France, of course, is not alone in striking lucrative arms deals in the region. The US remains the biggest arms exporter to the Middle East, with $8.4 billion (€7.5 billion) worth of weapon sales in 2014, while the UK and Germany are also major players.

At the same time, Russia, possibly incentivised by the influx of weapons from Western states, appears to be upping support for its main ally in the region – Iran – as evidenced by its decision in April to go ahead with its controversial delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.

This, analyst Tobias Borck of the Royal United Services Institute told the UK’s Guardian newspaper last month, is triggering a dangerous arms race, one that could spill over into bloodshed at any moment.

“[The] Saudi-led military operations in Yemen [are] the latest manifestation of Arab interventionism, a trend that has been gaining momentum in the Middle East since the uprisings of the Arab spring,” he said. “Middle Eastern countries appear to be increasingly willing to use their armed forces to protect and pursue their interests in crisis zones across the region.”

Such concerns, though, are unlikely to lessen Hollande’s pursuit of more Saudi investment in French arms.

According to the French Defence Ministry, the arms deals struck in 2015 alone have created close to 30,000 new jobs for the French economy.

At a time when unemployment is at a record high – with 3.51 million out of work at last count – those sorts of figures will be difficult for the French president to ignore.

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