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France’s €17bn warplane sale with UAE cements Gulf alliance

Sarah White in Paris and Andrew England in London

France has secured its biggest overseas order for its Rafale combat jet with the United Arab Emirates as President Emmanuel Macron looks to deepen ties with an important Middle Eastern ally.

On a visit to Dubai on Friday ahead of meetings in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Macron cemented the sale in a ceremony with the UAE’s de facto leader Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan as part of broader economic and security talks.

The €17bn-plus deal involves 80 Rafale jets and 12 Caracal helicopters made by France’s Dassault Aviation and Airbus, in what Macron called “the biggest military contract in our history”. Dassault shares surged as much as 9 per cent on news of the deal.

The contract follows Rafale orders from Croatia, Greece and Egypt this year. Its value tops the share of France’s Naval group in the €56bn submarines contract that Canberra scrapped in September, according to the defence ministry.

Relations between France and the UAE have strengthened in recent years as Macron and Sheikh Mohammed have been aligned on many issues in the Middle East.

In Libya, the two states have supported Khalifa Haftar, the general who controls much of the country’s east. They both have had challenging relations with Turkey and share a deep mistrust and concern about Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The UAE has also backed France’s efforts to combat Jihadi groups in the Sahel states of sub-Saharan Africa with funds and by flying out aid to the region.

A French-made Rafale fighter jet. The deal comes as the UAE’s attempt to acquire US-made F-35 jets has come under scrutiny in Washington © AFP via Getty Images
The two leaders “reaffirmed their common support for elections and the withdrawal of mercenaries in Libya”, the French presidency said, referring to the departure of foreign fighters that was part of a ceasefire agreement brokered by the UN. Libya is holding the first round of its presidential election on December 24. Macron also called on the UAE to step up humanitarian efforts in Lebanon.

The Gulf state followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in withdrawing its ambassador from Beirut in October, ostensibly over comments made by a Lebanese minister about the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s war, but also because of concerns about the influence of Hizbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed political and militant movement.

Abu Dhabi is longtime client of France’s Dassault — it bought Mirage 2000 fighter jets — and France has long been one of the UAE’s main security suppliers alongside the US.

The Rafale deal follows a decade of negotiations, and comes as the UAE’s attempt to acquire US-made F-35 jets, which was agreed by the Trump administration, has come under scrutiny in Washington. The Biden administration has expressed concerns over the F35 deal due to worries about Abu Dhabi’s use of Huawei’s 5G telecommunications network and the risk of technology transfer to China.

“France has shown itself to be a more willing defence and security partner to the United Arab Emirates, and a number of other Arab states,” said Charles Forrester, an analyst at defence consultancy Janes. He added that flexibility from French manufacturers in allowing buyers such as the UAE to integrate home-made weapons and equipment into aircraft made their offer attractive and gave the Gulf state more security on supply chain issues.

The Rafale deals have not been exempt from criticism, including after Macron said he would not make the Egyptian order conditional on human rights demands, as he did not want to undermine efforts to fight Islamist terrorism in the region.

Human rights campaigners lashed out at the Egypt weapons deal, saying France was only encouraging the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has led a repressive crackdown across civil society.

Human Rights Watch has also criticised the UAE deal because the country has been part of an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia that is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAE withdrew most of its troops from Yemen in 2019.

Macron said he was an “ardent defender” of a deal that would boost French industry and jobs. He said France had a role to play in the Middle East and the “power to provide balance”.

“We cannot act to help Lebanon, to help Iraq, we cannot act against terrorism in the region . . . if we don’t put ourselves in a position in which we can talk to everyone and have trusting and strategic relations with our partners,” Macron told reporters.

Macron is supporting efforts to try to broker a peace deal between Yemeni rebels and Saudi Arabia.

Additional reporting by Samer Al-Atrush in Riyadh

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