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French president heads to UAE to seal major arms contract

French President Emmanuel Macron is embarking on a tour of energy-rich Persian Gulf region Friday, hoping to seal lucrative arms contract in Abu Dhabi, according to reports.

The two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia comes at a time when Arab states have voiced uncertainty about the US’ focus on the region even as they seek more weapons from their key security ally.

According to a report in Reuters, Paris and Abu Dhabi are poised to sign a contract finalizing the sale of dozens of French Rafale fighter jets.

The report quoted sources as saying that Abu Dhabi could buy about 60 fighter jets, although they emphasized the deal was not finalized yet.

The French leader is expected to attend a signing ceremony with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo 2020 later on Friday, the presidency said on Thursday in a handout outlining Macron’s schedule.

This would be the biggest bulk purchase of the Dassault-made Rafale, other than by the French army, and comes after similar deals with Greece, Egypt and Croatia earlier this year.

The two countries have forged a close relationship in recent years with large-scale investments flowing between them. Paris has a permanent military base in the Emirati capital.

“I don’t want to spoil the Christmas present with the president,” Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, told reporters ahead of Macron’s visit, when asked whether Abu Dhabi would purchase the fighter jets.

The French presidency declined to confirm or deny the sale, and Dassault could not immediately be reached for comment, the Reuters report noted.

French weekly business magazine Challenges reported on November 19 that talks were at an advanced stage for between 30 and 60 planes, and could be sealed during Macron’s visit.

Defense sources, quoted in the report, said the Rafale fighter jets would replace the UAE’s fleet of Mirage warplanes, and are unlikely to displace the American F-35 as Abu Dhabi continues to hedge its security with two major suppliers, France and the United States.

The potential arms sale comes amid French concerns over a new weapons agreement between the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, which officials in Paris contend has sidelined them.

The controversial trilateral security pact, dubbed AUKUS, led to Australia scrapping a multibillion-dollar deal with France to build conventional submarines.

Since 2016, France had been in negotiations with Australia to build a fleet of 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines in a deal worth £48 billion ($90bn).

It will instead acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with the US and British technology.

The AUKUS security pact will see nuclear submarines being built in Adelaide, South Australia, and will be the first time the UK and US have shared nuclear capabilities with another nation.

France sees the move as a “stab in the back” as secret negotiations have taken place since early spring.

France should stop selling arms to UAE, Saudi Arabia

Meanwhile, international human rights groups have called on France to stop selling munitions to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and to address rights abuses in their region.

They argue that France is promoting the sale of dozens of Rafale fighter jets even though the UAE has played a key role in the Saudi-led military aggression in Yemen. Emirati forces have also been complicit in the killing of civilians through indiscriminate air and drone raids in Libya.

Paris, however, has stubbornly continued arms sale to the regime in Riyadh, in defiance of UN resolutions that call for a halt to weapons exports to the region, fearing that the arms could be used to commit unlawful attacks or even war crimes in neighboring Syria.

The human rights groups further accuse the UAE and Saudi Arabia leaders of doing little to address the concerns related to terrible human rights record in their respective countries, calling on Abu Dhabi to release human rights and reform activist Ahmed Mansoor and other dissidents.

They have also urged Riyadh to come clean on the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in which the Saudi top political brass is directly involved.

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