Human Rights Groups Decry $18B Arms Deal Between France, UAE Over War Crimes in Yemen

France and the United Arab Emirates announced an arms deal Friday worth billions of euros, provoking backlash from human rights groups.

The Associated Press reported that France will sell the UAE 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes for 16 billion euros ($18 billion). They will also buy 12 Airbus-built combat helicopters.

As French President Emmanuel Macron traveled Friday to the Persian Gulf to sign the deal, groups such as the Human Rights Watch denounced the move. The groups warned that the aircrafts could be used for "unlawful attacks or even war crimes" in Yemen and Libya.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have long been accused of involvement in Yemen's conflict. Al-Jazeera reported that in late October, a London-based legal team submitted a case accusing 22 high-ranking Saudi and UAE officials of involvement in "crimes against humanity."

"France's support for the UAE and Saudi Arabia is even more objectional as their leaders have failed to improve their countries' disastrous human rights records domestically, although their public relations efforts to present themselves as progressive and tolerant internationally is in full swing," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation said it will start delivering planes to the UAE in 2027.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Emmanuel Macron, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan
French President Emmanuel Macron is visiting the energy-rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf on Friday with an aim to close a lucrative arms deal and strengthen France's leadership role in renewed international efforts to revive Iran's cratered nuclear deal with world powers. Above, Macron (left) shakes hand with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 21, 2017. Thibault Camus, File/AP Photo

The deals offer a shot in the arm for France's defense industry after the collapse of a $66 billion contract for Australia to buy 12 French submarines that ultimately went to the U.S. But the deals faced criticism by human rights groups concerned about the UAE's involvement in the years-long war in Yemen.

France has particularly deep ties to the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. France has a naval base there and French warplanes and personnel also are stationed in a major facility outside the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi.

Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Macron said they are important contracts for the deepening defense cooperation between France and the UAE that will contribute to the stability of the region and enhance a common fight against terrorism.

In addition, "it's important for our economy because the planes are manufactured in France," he said.

Macron and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE's de facto ruler, were present at the Rafale contract signing.

Dassault said the UAE is buying the upgraded F4 version of its multirole Rafale combat aircraft. That will make the Emirates Air Force the first Rafale F4 user outside of France, it said.

Dassault Aviation boss Eric Trappier called the sale "a French success story" and "excellent news for France and for its aeronautical industry."

The purchase marks a sizable step up for the UAE's military capabilities in the oil- and gas-rich region. Charles Forrester, a senior analyst at Janes, said the fighter "will significantly upgrade UAE's airpower capabilities in terms of strike, air-to-air warfare, and reconnaissance." Abu Dhabi also hopes to buy American stealth F-35 fighters after diplomatically recognizing Israel last year.

Dassault said the Rafale will give the UAE "a tool capable of guaranteeing sovereignty and operational independence."

French defense officials were jubilant. Defense Minister Florence Parly said the Rafale deal "directly contributes to regional stability." The additional sale of Caracal helicopters also illustrates "the density of our defense relationship," she said.

Macron's keen interest in forging personal relationships with Abu Dhabi's crown prince and his counterpart in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, makes him a welcome guest in the region. Both Gulf leaders value a degree of pragmatism when discussing democracy and human rights—issues on which their countries have been heavily criticized by rights groups and European lawmakers—while pursuing business opportunities.

Months after Macron was elected in 2017, he traveled to the UAE to inaugurate Louvre Abu Dhabi, built under a $1.2 billion agreement to share the name and art of the world-famous museum in Paris.

In September, Macron hosted Abu Dhabi's crown prince at the historic Chateau de Fontainebleau outside Paris, which was restored in 2019 with a UAE donation of 10 million euros ($11.3 million).

The UAE and France also have become increasingly aligned over a shared mistrust of Islamist political parties across the Middle East and backed the same side in Libya's civil strife.

A senior French presidency official who spoke to reporters ahead of the trip on customary condition of anonymity said Macron will "continue to push and support the efforts that contribute to the stability of the region, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf."

Louvre, Abu Dhabi
Human rights groups denounced French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to travel to the Persian Gulf to sign an arms deal with the United Arab Emirates. Above, President-Director of the Louvre Museum Jean-Luc Martinez (left), Macron (second from left), Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority Chairman Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak (second from right) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum during its inauguration in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on November 8, 2017. Ludovic Marin/Pool photo via AP, File

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