France faces legal risks over Saudi, UAE arms sales: lawyers

PARIS (Reuters) - France and its arms suppliers face heightened legal risks for supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE despite warnings such arms could be used in the war in Yemen, a law firm’s report commissioned by human rights groups said on Monday.

The two Gulf Arab states are leading a coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi group that controls most of northern Yemen and the capital Sanaa. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than three million.

The report follows criticism of President Emmanuel Macron by rights groups and French lawmakers over his support for the coalition, opaque arms sales and inadequate safeguards to prevent its weapons being used in Yemen operations.

“This study shows a legally high risk that France’s arms transfers are contrary to its international commitments,” concluded Joseph Breham et Laurence Greig, authors of Ancile Avocats’ 92-page report commissioned by Amnesty International and the French human rights group ACAT.

“The French government has authorized exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in circumstances where these weapons can be used in the conflict in Yemen and could be used to carry out war crimes.”

Asked about the export licensing system, France’s foreign ministry said government processes are “robust and transparent”.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the biggest buyers of French arms, receiving tanks, armored vehicles, munitions, artillery and, in the UAE’s case, fighter jets. While some other European states have scaled back their military ties with the Saudi-led coalition, Britain and the United States continue to pursue them.

The report came at an awkward time for Macron, who is due to host Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in early April. French-Saudi relations are more strained than in recent years.

However, French officials say privately they have already told weapons suppliers that they should refrain from seeking new export licenses for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“I don’t think you’ll see a clear pushback from us. What’s more likely is an informal message to companies to not bother asking for licenses,” said a French diplomat.

“It will be a de facto restriction but without saying it publicly, so as not to annoy the Saudis.”

Export licensing procedures, however, have no parliamentary checks or balances. Some French diplomats and aid officials say there is no evidence Paris has halted or reduced its arms exports to the two countries.

Reporting by John Irish and Emmanuel Jarry; editing by Richard Lough/Mark Heinrich