Signing of deal comes as French President Emmanuel Macron begins a two-day trip to the Gulf, during which he will also visit Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The United Arab Emirates and France have signed a $19bn arms deal that will see the Gulf state acquire 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters.
The largest-ever overseas sale of Rafale jets was sealed on Friday as French President Emmanuel Macron began a two-day trip to the Gulf, during which he will also visit Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“This contract cements a strategic partnership that is stronger than ever and directly contributes to regional stability,” the French presidency said in a statement after Macron and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) signed the deal on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo 2020.
Macron’s visit comes at a time when Gulf Arab states have voiced uncertainty about the United States’s focus on the region even as they seek more weapons from their key security ally.
The French leader has forged a good relationship with MBZ with investments flowing between the two countries.
The deal will directly support 7,000 jobs in France and guarantee the supply chain of the Dassault Aviation-made aircraft until the end of 2031, a French official told journalists.
He also said the UAE contract, which follows deals in Greece, Egypt and Croatia this year, would lead to an increase of the monthly Rafale production.
Shares in Dassault Aviation SA, the Rafale’s maker, rose more than 9 percent.
The F4 model Rafales, currently under development, will be delivered from 2027.
By snapping up the fighter craft, the UAE is following the lead of Gulf rival Qatar, which has bought 36 of the planes.
The on-off negotiations for the Rafale fighter jets took more than 10 years with Abu Dhabi publicly rebuffing France’s offer to supply 60 Rafale jets in 2011 as “uncompetitive and unworkable”. Abu Dhabi already has French-built Mirage 2000 warplanes.
Defence sources said the Rafale would replace the Mirage 2000 fleet but is unlikely to displace the American-built F-35 as the UAE continues to hedge its security with two main suppliers, France and the United States.
The deal could nonetheless be seen as a signal of impatience as the US Congress hesitates on approving an F-35 deal amid concerns about the UAE’s relationship with China, including the prevalence of Huawei 5G technology in the country.
Abu Dhabi also ordered 12 Caracal helicopters. It is the French code name for the H225M, the multi-role military version of the Super Puma.
France has deep ties with the UAE and is one of its main arms’ suppliers, but it has faced increasing pressure to review its sales because of the conflict between a Saudi-led military coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“France is going ahead with these sales despite the UAE playing a leading role in the atrocity-marred military operations led by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Yet, the UAE ranks as France’s 5th largest arms customer between 2011 and 2020. The French president should denounce the human rights violations in these three countries.”
French fighter jets and personnel are also stationed at al-Dhafra Air Base, a key facility outside the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi that is also home to several thousand United States troops.
Months after Macron was elected in 2017, he travelled to the UAE to inaugurate Louvre Abu Dhabi, built under a $1.2bn 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 ($11.3m).
Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala sovereign wealth fund also pledged eight billion euros ($9bn) in investments in French businesses, while the license of the UAE capital’s branch of the Louvre art gallery was extended for 10 years to 2047.