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- President of France
Emmanuel Macron on Friday signed a historic €17 billion (£14.5bn) defence deal with the United Arab Emirates, in what experts said was part of an effort for France to replace Britain as the European powerhouse in the Gulf.
The deal was announced at the start of a two-day trip to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as Mr Macron held talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (pictured below).
It includes the purchase of 80 Rafale warplanes, 12 Airbus helicopters, and missiles - the largest-ever overseas weapons sale.
In triumphant tones, the French president said the deal was the fruit of Gallic diplomatic prowess.
"French engagement in the region, active cooperation in the fight against terrorism and the clear positions we have taken have allowed us to grow closer with the United Arab Emirates," he told journalists in Dubai.
Leading French radio station Europe 1 described the contract as a way for Mr Macron to “wash his honour” just five months before presidential elections in which his ability to fight for France on the international stage will come up as a campaign issue.
The issue is particularly sensitive following the country’s humiliating loss of an Australian mega-submarine contract to the UK in September. Paris slammed the move as a "stab in the back" at the time and Mr Macron made a clear reference to it in his Dubai speech.
"At a time when questions are being asked about other long-term partners, I think this reinforces the position of France," he said, describing his country as a "solid" and "trustworthy" ally that "sticks to its commitments”.
With France taking up the rotating presidency of the EU in January, analysts said Mr Macron is increasingly seeking to raise his international profile as the go-to European leader since Brexit.
"Macron stands out among European Union leaders with his willingness to be in the spotlight, to drive the foreign policy and push things ahead," said Silvia Colombo, an expert on EU-Gulf relations at the International Affairs Institute in Rome.
Friday’s Rafale deal - which was more than a decade in the making - also deepens existing security ties between France and the UAE at a time when diplomats say US allies in the Middle East are questioning the commitment of the United States following its exit from Afghanistan.
The deal with the French is widely seen as a signal of impatience as the US Congress hesitates on approving a separate deal to sell F-35s to UAE amid concerns about its relationship with China, including the prevalence of Huawei 5G technology in the country.
The first French warplanes will be delivered from 2027, say officials, and would create some 7,000 jobs.
France has particularly deep ties to the UAE, where it has a naval base and French warplanes and personnel also are stationed in a major facility outside the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi.
Mr Macron travelled there shortly after his 2017 election to inaugurate Louvre Abu Dhabi, built under a $1.2 billion (£903.8m) agreement to share the name and art of the world-famous museum in Paris. On Friday, the contract was extended another 10 years to 2047.
But human rights groups warned that the weapons the UAE provides to its Gulf allies could be used "for unlawful attacks or even war crimes" in Yemen as well as Libya.
In an embarrassment for Mr Macron, a group of NGOs on Friday filed a legal complaint in Paris against the leaders of UAE and Saudi Arabia for war crimes, torture and funding terrorism.
French Green presidential candidate Yannick Jadot said: “France shames us when she arms authoritarian regimes. France will be a beacon when its foreign policy is exemplary in the fight for freedom and climate justice.”