How France Participates in the Yemen Conflict

Arms Sales and War Crimes · From 11 to 15 September, Geneva will be hosting the Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. The world’s third largest purveyor of armaments, France has a privileged relationship in this area with Saudi Arabia and its allies. According to hitherto undisclosed data revealed to Orient XXI by the Observatoire des Armements, the French government used a contract for weapons ostensibly meant for Lebanon to prepare for the Kingdom’s war in Yemen and speed up delivery at the height of that conflict.

French Leclerc tanks sold to the United Arab Emirates and used in the Yemen conflict.

For two years now war has been waged by the richest countries of the Middle East – and of the world – against the poorest, and has continued without a letup, largely ignored by our politicians and media. On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia and ten other countries launched a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen against the Houthists. Abdel Malek Al-Houthi and his followers, by concluding an alliance with their former adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had forced transitional president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to resign. At the beginning of the Saudi offensive, the Houthists occupied Sanaa, the capital, as well as Aden, the largest city in the South. Hadi had called for help and the Saudi and their allies claim they want to put him back in power and counter the influence of Iran. The Security Council endorsed their initiative and France, the United Kingdom and the United States have been supplying arms.1

The United States and the United Kingdom are regularly accused of war-crime complicity by reason of their arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, at the head of an Arab coalition of ten armies. France, however, has been spared such accusations, despite a long-standing partnership with the Saudi Kingdom and several of its allies. Starting around 2010, Paris decided to turn more to the Gulf countries to boost its arms exports. French authorities opened a military base in Abu Dhabi for equipment demonstrations, at the risk of compromising the country’s political independence for the sake of arms sales.

In 2016, some 50% of the orders placed with the French industry came from the Middle East.2 The Saudi monarchy is its number one client, having purchased nearly nine billion euros worth of weaponry between 2010 and 2016, which represents some 15 to 20% of France’s annual arms exports. These weapons are easily adapted to conditions in Yemen as they were built in response to the requirements of Middle East countries, all of the which are rich and either at war or affected by chronic instability. According to hitherto undisclosed data supplied by l’Observatoire des Armements, France and Saudi Arabia made covert use of a contract meant for Lebanon to prepare for war in Yemen.

A Lucrative Market

The coalition’s bombings—including many “blunders” which are tantamount to war crimes and which Saudi Arabi has so far managed to keep the UN from investigating—are thought to have killed 10 000 civilians according to data collected since January 2017 (the exact figure is in fact unknown). The UN and several NGOs report famine, a cholera epidemic and thousands of wounded and displaced persons. A “catastrophe entirely due to human intervention” as the latest report from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reminds us. Not to mention the partial destruction of the ancient city of Sanaa, a World Heritage Site, and the reinforcement of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): AQAP is more powerful than ever. While ISIS makes the headlines [. . .] Al-Qaida is a model of success”. In particular, “it has managed to exploit a flourishing war economy,” writes April Longley Alley. Saudi Arabia has flooded Yemen with Steyr AUG assault rifles and some have found their way into the hands of AQAP. One of the Charlie Hebdo killers claimed to belong to that organization, which raises the issue of the diversion of weapons to terrorist groups.

And yet the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), ratified by France on 2 April 2014, prohibits the export of weapons liable to be used in violation of international human rights law. Now not only did France go on with its sales of weapons to the belligerents after March 2015, it stepped them up: Rafale fighter planes to Qatar and Egypt, a landing helicopter dock Mistral and a multipurpose frigate FREMM to Egypt, Sherpa Light armored vehicles built by Renault and Caracal helicopters built by Airbus Industries to Kuwait. As a creditor of some of these countries, Saudi Arabia has the means to draw them into war and the weapons sold to its allies can be lent to it or serve its military objectives.

“In 2015, France granted Saudi Arabia alone licenses amounting to 900 million euros for military goods delivered that same year. [. . .] At no time has the government indicated over the past two years that it had rejected, canceled or suspended any export licenses,” according to Amnesty International.

Saudi Arabia: a Pampered Customer

The readiness displayed by French arms manufacturers to comply with Saudi requests is a reflection of the close ties between the two countries which go back many years. While it is extremely difficult to obtain precise information on this very secretive subject, some sources are available:

➞ from the very beginning of the war in Yemen, the French army “flew reconnaissance missions over the Houthist positions for the benefit of the Saudi client and kept on training its fighter pilots” according to MS&T Magazine;

➞ France also supplied Thales Damocles XF laser designation pods to be placed under the Saudi fighter bombers—which do not prevent “blunders”;

➞ three months after the war began, a flying tanker Airbus 330-200 MRTT was delivered to Saudi Arabia. This was the last of a fleet of six; in April 2017, two of these aircraft were deployed over Yemen where they are indispensable to the ongoing war, fueling in flight the Saudi F15s; Caesar 155mm. Canons, built by the French firm Nexter, Cougar troop transport helicopters from the European group EADS, SDTI military espionage drones from the French firm Sagem have also been transferred after the start of the conflict ;

➞ in 2016, France delivered 276 light armored vehicles according to its own official report of July 2017 to the secretariat of the ATT. The package was largely made up of Sherpa Light vehicles from Renault and Vab Mark 3 personnel carriers from Renault Trucks Defense. All of these were originally meant for Lebanon. In February 2016, its bombing campaign having failed, the coalition began to rely on local militias equipped with light Nimr vehicles supplied by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their attempt to oust Houthist forces[Michael Knights, Alexandre Mello, « Gulf Coalition Targeting AQAP in Yemen », The Washington Institute, 10 mai 2016.]]. The arrival of the French armored vehicles, which easily weave through the narrow streets of Arab towns, tied in perfectly with this counter-insurrectionist strategy on the ground. And the Sherpa Lights are equipped with the latest detection devices which provide protection against the homemade booby traps laid by the Houthists;

➞ moreover, the coalition also uses small patrol boats in support of their warships blockading the country. While the French company Couach has blocked at berth two rapid patrol boats meant for export to Yemen on account of the embargo, it began delivery of its high-speed interceptors to Saudi Arabia in August 2016. And according to Ouest France, 39 new craft of this type are under construction for Ryad. In December 2016 the contract was being finalized;

➞ to ensure this blockade which is starving the whole population, the coalition uses Baynunah class corvettes supplied by the UAE, as Naday Pollak and Michael Knights point out in “Gulf Coalition Operations in Yemen (part 3), Maritime and Aerial Blockade3. When the Kingdom’s fleet withdrew for maintenance in March 2016, the French navy stepped in to ensure the continuity of the blockade as La Lettre de l’Océan Indien explained at the time. Besides which, the coalition naval forces are equipped with electronic navigational systems sold by Safran, another French arms manufacturer, among them instruments essential for missile logistics; and finally, 745 long-range sniper rifles were supplied to Riyadh in 2015 and 500 in 2016 according to thase years’ reports from the ATT secretariat.

Arms for Lebanon Turn Up in Yemen

Some of these weapons were originally meant for the Lebanese army. Signed at the end of 2014 for a total of three billion euros, the Donas (“Don Arabie saoudite”, Gift Saudi Arabia) contract provided for the delivery to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) of French military equipment. Saudi Arabia footed the bill for 2.2 billion euros. The reasons given for this transfer? The fight against ISIS and the war in Syria. Industrialists had been working on this contract since 2011 and first delivery was made in April 2015 but was soon called into question because of the Saudis conflict with a French go-between, the ODAS company. Six months after the contract was formalized, Saudi Arabia launched its offensive in Yemen. Arms industrialists contacted by l’Observatoire des armements wondered about the timing: was the Donas contract drawn up in anticipation of that war? In order for their material to be adapted to the conditions laid down by the purchasing country, arms manufacturers must respect NATO agreements. “In 2015 we began testing the material planned for Donas. To our surprise we had to adapt the material to conditions which did not tally with those that prevail in Lebanon.4 That was when the penny dropped. We were working on equipment that was meant to serve in Yemen,” as we were told by an industrialist on condition of anonymity. According to our informant, by April 2017, “80% of the park of weaponry meant for Beirut was actually the object of a firm order from Saudi Arabia for its own troops and 95% had already been deployed in the field, for testing purposes or permanently.” According to the general press this contract was renamed Saudi-French Military Contract (SFMC) in 2015, and Saudi Arabia became sole consignee, but according to the intelligence press it remains intact . By creating confusion around the Donas contract over the delivery of these weapons and their final destination, France blurred its responsibilities and diverted attention from the problematic usage to which they were being put.

France also equipped the other belligerents in this conflict, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Among the material used in Yemen are Leclerc tanks from the UAE—on the news channel LCI, high-ranking French officers bragged about the unprecedented results of French equipment in Yemen—as well as Mirage 2000s from the UAE and Qatar, for which France still provides maintenance, updating and munitions.[“Qatar joins Saudi-led bombing campaign of Houthi targets in Yemen”,, 26 March 2015.]]

These fighter planes are used as bombers, the Emirate’s flight personnel having complained about their limited ammunition storage capacity.

Moreover, when selling weapons such as the Mirage, the Rafale or the Leclerc tank, France commits itself to a period of maintenance which may last anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years. It is therefore tied for all that time to the policies of the client State.

While the War Rages on, It’s Business as usual

One year after the beginning of this conflict, launched by a thirty-one-year-old crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman (son of King Salman) seeking to gain legitimacy after his appointment as minister of defense, it was already doomed to failure. The battle line has scarcely moved, pockets of resistance have formed and the coalition has responded with a strategy of counter-insurrection relying on local militias equipped with Nimr transport vehicles provided by the UAE. At the same time, the Saudi economy and its own citizens are suffering from this war as well.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced the coalition’s “war crimes”. In February 2016, as the result of a campaign by The European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) of which the Observatoire des armements is a member, and by the British NGO Saferworld, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding an EU embargo on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. In spite of pressure exerted by Manuel Valls’ government, the socialist MPs voted in favor of the text. But France has not revised its policies and on 4 March 2016, François Holland went so far as secretly to award the Légion d’Honneur to crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef.

French support for the Saudi operations is thus military, logistic and political, which explains the silence of its diplomats. Its complicity with the crimes perpetrated in Yemen is still not at issue. French MPs remains indifferent. No parliamentary investigation committee has been formed despite the fact that NGOs and other associations are demanding that the French call an immediate halt to their transactions with the belligerents and set up parliamentary oversight on arms sales.

On 16 December 2015, nine months after the offensive began, arms manufacturers taking part in a Sorbonne colloquium on “the defense industries faced with international challenges,” congratulated themselves on their record sales. Pascale Sourisse, general director in charge of international development for Thales, whose chief customer is the French Defense Ministry, was delighted at a robust market “which is certainly not shrinking” and spoke of “an exceptional year.” Similar satisfaction was expressed during the international defense and security exhibition, Eurosatory, held in Paris in 2016, where in fact Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to the Thales stand. Etienne de Durand, delegate in charge of defense policy and foresight for the Directorate general of international relations and strategy (DGRIS) of the Defense Ministry made this ironical comment at the Sorbonne: “Selling arms isn’t like selling shoes.” And to top it all, at a meeting in the Saudi embassy, last 22 March, when a dozen French journalists, including collaborators of Orient XXI, met with Saudi generals and other representatives of the Kingdom, all hinted that they hadn’t the slightest idea how the war was going to end nor what kind of strategy could resolve the current stalemate. Contacted by OrientXXI, the French Foreign Ministry would answer none of our questions.

1On Yemen, read Laurent Bonnefoy.

2Calculation based on figures contained in the report to Parliament on French arms exports (2017)

3The Washington Institute, 25 mars 2016.

4Yemen’s geography is one of “air-currents and windy corridors” which determine the effects of salt and sand on electronic components which differ from those encountered in Lebanon, where the geography is “closed, polluted and restricted.”