France avoids question on Saudi Arabia weapons sales

PARIS (Reuters) - France declined to say on Monday if it might suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, after Germany called on others to follow its example until the truth about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is established.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks during a news conference with his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui in Tunis, Tunisia October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Riyadh has given conflicting accounts about Khashoggi’s death on Oct. 2 at its consulate in Istanbul. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called the killing a “huge and grave mistake” but sought to shield Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

Asked if Paris would heed Berlin’s call to suspend weapons sales, foreign ministry deputy spokesman Olivier Gauvin said only that France’s arms sales control policy was strict and based on case-by-case analysis by an inter-ministerial committee.

“Weapons exports to Saudi Arabia are examined in this context,” he told a daily briefing, without elaborating.

Paris and Riyadh enjoy close diplomatic and commercial relations spanning energy, finance and weapons. But France, which considers Riyadh a bulwark against Iranian influence in the Middle East, now faces a balancing act.

From 2008 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second biggest purchaser of French arms, with deals totaling more than 11 billion euros ($12.6 billion), French defense ministry data shows. In 2017 alone, licenses potentially worth 14.7 billion euros to Saudi were approved.

Speaking in Tunis, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described Khashoggi’s killing as a “serious crime”.

“We want Saudi Arabia to reveal all the truth with full clarity and then we will see what we can do,” he told a news conference.

President Emmanuel Macron has sought to downplay the importance of relations with Riyadh, saying last Friday that Saudi Arabia was not a major client of France, although his defense minister told lawmakers those arms sales were crucial for French jobs.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government minister said France’s influence in the region was at stake and it was vital that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman retain his position.

“The challenge is not to lose MBS, even if he is not a choir boy. A loss of influence in the region would cost us much more than the lack of arms sales,” the minister said.

Reporting by John Irish, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Tarek Amara in Tunis; Editing by William Maclean and Robin Pomeroy