– France fills the American arms void
Gulf states are scrambling to buy the French Rafale fighter jet, the highly-profitable backbone of Hollande’s real politik economic diplomacy.
France brandished the Rafale as the centerpiece of major new diplomatic strides.
Recently a $12 billion deal with Saudi Arabia announced, the Rafale has become the backbone of Paris’s real politik economic diplomacy aimed at sustaining its global stature and capitalizing on recent rifts in the United States’ relations with its partners.
Gulf states are signing defense contracts with Paris to express their discontent with American policies in the wake of the Iran nuclear negotiations.
The fact that the Iran talks have excluded Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners while ignoring Tehran’s regional meddling has led Gulf partners to question the American commitment to their security, especially after the administration’s backtracking on a Syrian chemical weapons red line.
Spotting an opportunity, France has stepped in to fill the void.
France adopted a hard line from the beginning of the Iran nuclear talks to both distinguish itself from the United States and to cultivate closer ties with the Saudis and other nervous Gulf states. It continues to push for a UN Security Council resolution enforcing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, forcing the Obama administration to seek a postponement of any vote on the issue.
Presenting an alternative to the United States on such key regional issues has helped Paris put the Rafale on the map and secure billions in regional defense contracts over the past year, raising French arms exports to the highest level in 15 years.
In Egypt, France capitalized on the contentious U.S. arms suspension that began in late 2013 to secure a Rafale deal in February, which came on the heels of the Egyptian navy’s purchase of four French corvettes last summer.
Even though the United States ended the suspension earlier this year, France’s military deals are not tied to mutual security objectives and have no conditions requiring Cairo to undertake political reforms. As Egypt’s experience shows, France has emerged as an attractive, no-strings-attached alternative for states seeking to sidestep the scrutiny of U.S. conditional aid.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s geopolitical heavyweight and one of the United States’ most important regional partners, has also followed suit. King Salman of Saudi Arabia skipped US President’ Camp but he sent French President François Hollande a royal invitation to the GCC summit in Riyadh. As the first foreign leader to attend the summit, Hollande’s presence sent a stark signal to the United States that the GCC has another reliable partner in the West.
But Hollande’s attendance at a ceremony in Doha before the summit was even more significant. France benefits from U.S.-Qatari tensions stemming from Qatar’s support for radical Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates from Libya to Syria, which has led to dangerously destabilizing competition for influence with some of its Gulf neighbors with closer U.S. ties. Seeing its chance, Paris seized the opportunity to sell Doha 24 Rafale fighter jets and other military equipment worth $7 billion.
Hollande used the sale of the Rafales, which beat out the Eurofighter Typhoon and the U.S.-built Boeing F-15 for the contract, to trumpet France’s credibility in the Gulf. Qatar originally sought 72 fighters and may yet pursue a split-buy with the U.S. aircraft, but Boeing F-15 production might not last past the end of the decade should Doha make its French deal exclusive.
French-Qatari relations are not spotless, but they still outshine the anemic U.S.-Qatari relationship. These political losses for the United States continue to translate into French defense-industrial gains.
Saudi Arabia did not opt for the Rafale, but Paris has stewarded bilateral cooperation that will grow significantly as France works to breathe life back into its ailing defense industry. The French hope to translate the momentum towards joint efforts to counter Hezbollah into new defense deals.
At a French-Saudi summit in late 2013, the kingdom announced it would provide $3 billion to the Lebanese army for the exclusive purchase of French weapons to be delivered by 2018.
In addition to these more recent developments, France has been Saudi Arabia’s primary naval supplier and partner in joint exercises since the 1980s, due to the Saudis’ preference for French surface crafts. The two countries have also profited from an upsurge in bilateral military and civil trade.
With these new sales under its belt, Hollande’s government hopes that the United Arab Emirates will be the next Gulf state to hop on the Rafale bandwagon. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian discussed the aircraft with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, reopening negotiations that stalled in 2011. Once again, U.S. contractors stand to lose out.
Paris is also applying its lessons from the Middle East elsewhere, taking advantage of a growing trend among historically “nonaligned” countries seeking out high-quality French military hardware and circumventing the frustrating U.S. foreign military sales system.
Most recently, Paris brokered a deal with India to update its aging air force with 36 Rafale fighters, worth an estimated $8.7 billion ( on inflated price due to shady corporate / government dealings).
This success has secured France’s diplomatic clout abroad, but it will also shore up the country’s economy. The defense industry, supporting 400,000 jobs, remains one of the few relatively stable holdouts in an otherwise ailing economy.
The recent row over France’s intended Mistral warship deal to Russia underscores how important the sector is to Hollande’s government. Even under immense pressure and political castigation from its NATO allies amid the Ukraine crisis, France was, until recently, prepared to move forward with the order to protect the 1,400 jobs the contract supplied.
France will not supplant the United States as an alternative security guarantor for the Middle East. Despite recent instability in its regional relationships, the United States maintains a forward military presence no other country could sustain. And for all of their bluster, Gulf partners still rely on Washington’s superior capabilities and will to act. But until relations between the United States and its Middle Eastern partners stabilize, France is happy to present an outlet for regional actors to express their dissatisfaction in exchange for lucrative defense deals.
With the Rafale leading the charge, this new brand of economic diplomacy is allowing one of Europe’s major powers to amplify its influence in the Middle East and beyond. Through the Rafale, French influence is seeping into the political cracks and fissures of the United States’ Gulf partnerships. From Iran to the Israel-Palestine issue, France’s tough talk has won many admirers in the region. And as its Rafale deals have shown, this talk is anything but cheap.