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French PM Valls in Saudi Arabia to sign ‘significant’ armaments deal

AFP archive picture | Manuel Valls (L) welcomes Saudi King (then Crown Prince) Salman bin Abdulaziz in Paris on September 2, 2014

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived in Saudi Arabia Monday on the third leg of a Middle East tour, hoping to secure large sales of French military equipment despite the kingdom’s questionable human rights record.


He arrived at the start of the Saudi-French Business Opportunities Forum, which will be attended by some 200 French companies seeking contracts with the oil-rich kingdom.

Valls, accompanied by his Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, is expected to sign a “significant” deal with Saudi Arabia on behalf of Airbus Helicopters for the sale of military aircraft.

But his visit comes amid rising concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Valls met with King Salman to request "a gesture of pardon, humanity and clemency" for a young Shiite, Ali al-Nimr, sentenced to death for taking part in anti-government demonstrations in 2012.

While this gesture is to be applauded, France is still sending a “mixed message” by asking for clemency while being one of the top arms suppliers to a country suspected of committing war crimes, according to Amnesty International.

Amnesty France spokesman Aymeric Elluin told FRANCE 24 the Saudis are suspected of using banned cluster munitions and illegally targeting civilians in its campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.

“Article six of the International Arms Trade Treaty forbids the sale of weapons that can be used to commit violations of international law,” he said. “France’s arms business is far from transparent, and we don’t know exactly what weapons are going to be sold or exactly how they are going to be used.”

“Yes, pleading for the life of a young man sentenced to be beheaded and crucified is important,” he added. “France campaigns globally against capital punishment, but you can’t do that while selling weapons that risk being used to commit war crimes. It sends a dangerous mixed message.”

France welcomes Saudi cash

France cannot easily ignore a customer like Saudi Arabia, however. With high unemployment and low economic growth, large foreign arms contracts are a welcome boost to the French economy.

Vall’s whistle-stop Middle East tour has certainly been a profitable exercise.

On Saturday he finalised a deal with Egypt that will buy two French-built Mistral helicopter warships, which can each carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft and 13 tanks.

In February, Egypt became the first foreign buyer of France's Rafale fighters, in a 5.2-billion-euro deal for 24 of the multi-role combat jets and a frigate.

According to French government sources, Egypt will pay 950 million euros for the warships which were originally ordered by Russia in a deal scrapped over the Ukraine crisis, with "significant" financing from Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has also expressed an interest in warships of the Mistral class, and is considering the purchase of four French-Italian FREMM (European Multi-Mission Frigate) vessels.

In November 2014, Riadh committed to buying $3 billion-worth (€2.7 billion) of French weapons and military equipment to supply the Lebanese army.

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.

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