Despite criticism at home, French arms sales double in the Middle East

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s weapons sales to the Middle East doubled in 2017, a government report showed, as President Emmanuel Macron defied pressure from lawmakers and rights groups to curb arms flows to a region mired in conflict.

France is among the world’s leading arms exporters, its sales surging in recent years on the back of its first lucrative overseas contracts for Rafale fighter jets, notably to India and Qatar, as well as a multi-billion submarine deal with Australia.

Paris has sought to increase its diplomatic weight in the Middle East through the sale of naval vessels, tanks, artillery and munitions to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The government’s annual report on weapons sales, due to be released on Wednesday, shows that France’s total arms sales halved to 7 billion euros in 2017, in line with previous years where no major contracts, such as for the Dassault-made Rafale, were recorded.

However, about 60 percent of sales went to the Middle East, with arms exports to the region worth 3.92 billion euros compared to 1.94 billion euros a year earlier.

Sales to Saudi Arabia fell slightly, while deals to the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar soared.

France’s biggest defense firms, including Dassault and Thales, have major contracts with the Gulf.

“It is not for France to conclude piecemeal transactions depending on market opportunities. The goal is to create a strong link with the importing states,” the report said. “France’s arms exports meet the legitimate needs of states.”

France is now the third largest arms exporter in the world behind the United States and Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Unlike those of many allies, France’s export licensing procedures have no parliamentary checks or balances. They are approved by a committee headed by the prime minister that includes the foreign, defense and economy ministries.

Details of licenses are not public and once approved are rarely reviewed.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and some lawmakers have urged Macron to scale back support for Arab states that are part of a Saudi-led offensive in Yemen against fighters from the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that controls the capital.

The French government says its arms sales are governed by strict procedures that are in line with international treaties.

Four NGOs, including the International Federation for Human Rights, on Monday accused the French state and several French companies of tacitly participating in an Egyptian government crackdown on opposition groups over the past five years.

The report cited, among other things, the sale of “personal surveillance, mass interception, personal data collection and crowd control (...) technologies that have led to the arrest of tens of thousands of opponents or militants.”

Additional repoting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Peter Graff