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France Takes the Lead

French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian (L) sits near Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Sultan bin Salman during a meeting in Jeddah, on October 7, 2013. Le Drian ends a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia focused on regional economic and military cooperation. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian (L) sits near Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Sultan bin Salman during a meeting in Jeddah, on October 7, 2013. Le Drian ends a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia focused on regional economic and military cooperation. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Two recent French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have refocused attention from the potential US-Iran rapprochement back toward hard security issues in the Arab Gulf States. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently wrapped up a successful visit to the region by concluding a USD 1.5 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to overhaul six navy ships that have been in service since the 1980s.

France is also in negotiation to sell the cutting edge dual-use Pleiades surveillance satellite system to Saudi Arabia and Le Drian’s visit to Riyadh was his third since taking office in May 2012. This followed the announcement in July that the UAE had signed a USD 913 million agreement with France to purchase two high-resolution Helios military satellites, another deal in which Le Drian was heavily involved. Imagery from Helios satellites earlier were provided by the Sarkozy government to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) in 2009 to assist in the operations against Houthi rebels operating on the Kingdom’s southern border with Yemen. The satellites are manufactured by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between France’s Thales and Italy’s Finmeccanica and were developed for the French space agency, CNES.

High-resolution optical systems and satellite radar represent the next phase in the strategic build-up of Gulf military and defense capabilities aimed at countering Iran. As a world-leader in their production, French officials are looking to the Gulf as a source of military orders, consistent with the Hollande government’s emphasis on diversifying strategic and commercial relations with the region. Under his predecessor as president, Nicholas Sarkozy, French policy was seen as tilting toward the tiny Gulf State of Qatar, but the Hollande government has sought to re-balance ties by focusing more on the two major regional players in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. During a visit to Jeddah in November 2012, Hollande described Saudi Arabia as “France’s foremost commercial partner.” That trip was primarily about establishing close personal relationships with key players at a time of intensifying competition among arms exporters for regional custom. Significantly, Hollande’s visit came just two days before a similar arrival by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was lobbying hard for Gulf purchases of British Typhoon jet fighters at the expense of the French-made Rafale jets.

Competition among arms exporters for contracts in the Gulf is nothing new, but two angles to the recent French deals are of interest. The first is the link with wider regional policy. France has consistently been hawkish on containing Iran through an ever-tightening regime of international sanctions and just last week warned against bending to Iran’s charm offensive, while over the past several months, President Hollande emerged as a leading advocate of military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. Both stances resonate positively in (most) Gulf capitals and contrast starkly with the nervousness felt by many across the region at the putative signs of Iranian-US engagement at the United Nations and incomprehension at the climb-down by President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron over bringing the Syrian regime to account for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.

This is not to say that arms deals drive French (or any other) foreign policies, but in an age of European austerity the attraction of inward investment from the Gulf is magnified by its positive impact on job and wealth creation. The sheer scale of recent deals—such as the record-breaking USD 60 billion sale of US systems to Saudi Arabia in 2010—and the desperation of British officials to repair frayed political relationships with Bahrain and the UAE is evidence of the lure of the economic incentives on offer. In France itself, Sarkozy’s close ties with Qatari leaders (themselves now out of power) resulted in a flurry of Qatari investment into the French economy, including a controversial attempt by Qatar to support small and medium-sized enterprises in deprived Parisian suburbs.

In terms of the accrual of political capital, France is unquestionably in the driving seat at the moment, helped by its competitors’ recent missteps. This leads to the second aspect of recent and ongoing negotiations worth watching, namely any concessions over the resolution and coverage area of the satellite technology being transferred. French officials made their military systems more attractive to the UAE by increasing the ground resolution of the satellites it exported from the internationally-recognized 70 centimeters to 50 centimeters, thereby allowing for a greater clarity and coverage of objects on the ground. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has so far refused to contemplate export of satellites with ground resolutions lower than 50 centimeters, and it will be instructive to see if France attempts to further consolidate its regional attractiveness by applying for an export license for higher resolution systems.

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Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the Baker Institute fellow for Kuwait. Previously, he worked as senior gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE). He is a visiting fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre and an associate fellow at Chatham House, UK.

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