The United Arab Emirates signed a record 14-billion-euro contract for 80 Rafale warplanes and committed billions of euros in other deals as French President Emmanuel Macron kicked off a Gulf tour on Friday.
The biggest international order ever made for the French jets came as Macron held talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed at the start of a two-day trip which will also take in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The resource-rich UAE, one of the French defence industry’s biggest customers, also inked an order for 12 Caracal military transport helicopters for a total bill of more than 17 billion euros.
“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,” Macron told journalists in Dubai.
“And at a time when questions are being asked about other long-term partners, I think this reinforces the position of France,” he added, describing France as a “solid” and “trustworthy” ally that “sticks to its commitments”.
Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala sovereign wealth fund also pledged eight billion euros in investments in French businesses, while the licence of the UAE capital’s branch of the Louvre art gallery was extended for 10 years to 2047.
The Emirates was the fifth biggest customer for the French defence industry with 4.7 billion euros from 2011-2020, according to a parliamentary report.
France has faced criticism after some of these weapons were used during the UAE’s engagement in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed rebels in a war that has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The Rafale order, signed on Friday while Macron met with Sheikh Mohammed at Dubai’s Expo site, is the biggest made internationally for the Dassault Aviation aircraft since it entered service in 2004.
It follows the collapse of a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Australia in September that left Paris fuming after Canberra negotiated a new defence pact with London and Washington.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly called it a “historic contract” which will contribute “directly to regional stability”. The F4 model Rafales, currently under development, will be delivered from 2027.
“This is an outcome of the strategic partnership between the two countries, consolidating their capacity to act together for their autonomy and security,” the French presidency said in a statement.
By snapping up the fighter aircraft the UAE is eclipsing the fleets of Gulf rival Qatar, which has bought 36 of the planes, and Egypt which ordered 24 in 2015 and 30 earlier this year.
The new order will replace the UAE’s 60 Mirage 2000-9 jets bought in 1998, and comes 10 years after failed negotiations by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Rafale has since made a breakthrough in the international market despite competition from American and other European manufacturers. It now has six foreign clients including Qatar, India, Egypt, Greece and Croatia.
Later on Friday, Macron will head to Qatar, where France will defend their football World Cup title next year, before ending his tour in Saudi Arabia, the globe’s top oil exporter, on Saturday.
He was accompanied by a large delegation in Dubai, including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Defence Minister Parly.