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Ahead of MBS visit, Macron pressured to scale back support for Saudi Arabia

Macron lawmaker has called for an inquiry into the legality of France's arms sales to the Gulf country
Mohammed bin Salman addresses the first meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Economic and Development Affairs Authority in Riyadh on 10 November 2016 (AFP)

Pressure has been mounting on French President Emmanuel Macron to tone down support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, days before the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) makes his way to France.

A lawmaker in Macron’s party officially called for a parliamentary investigation into the legality of France’s weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the government of the internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbuh Hadi, and have been at the helm of a coalition fighting the group.

The coalition is the only force known to carry out air strikes on Houthi-held territory and has previously admitted to "erroneous" strikes that caused civilian casualties. 

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than three million and driven the country - already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula - to the verge of famine. There is no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough to ease the crisis.

According to a poll by YouGov, 75 percent of French people want Macron to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Several rights groups also have warned of possible legal action if the government does not halt its sales.

A German government spokesperson announced in January it was halting all arms exports to countries involved in the war in Yemen.

In November 2017, Merkel's government was forced to admit that it had nearly quintupled arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Egypt between 2016 and 2017, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Norway has also halted arms sales to the UAE following its involvement in the war in Yemen.

Request for commission of inquiry

Sebastien Nadot, a lawmaker elected last year as part of hundreds of new parliamentarians who form Macron’s majority, said on Thursday he and 15 other co-signatories had officially filed a request for a commission of inquiry.

The inquiry asks for a 30-member commission “to study France’s compliance with international commitments regarding arms export licences, munitions, training, services and assistance that our country has granted during these three years to the belligerents of the conflict in Yemen”.

The move by Nadot, which comes just three days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives in France for bilateral talks, is surprising in that Macron has faced little opposition in parliament since coming to power last year and commands an overwhelming majority, with few of his lawmakers willing to question the executive’s decisions.

France is the world’s third biggest arms exporter and counts the two countries among its biggest purchasers. In recent years, France had nurtured new links with the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states due to its tough stance on Iran in nuclear negotiations, and the broad similarity of their policies on conflicts across the Middle East.

However, MBS's uncompromising efforts to counter Iran's growing influence in the combustible Middle East are sometimes perceived as reckless in Paris.

"The relationship could go either way, but it's clear that Prince Mohammed feels more love from Trump than Macron," a French diplomat told Reuters.

"While Macron recognises the reforming aspirations, he sees that MBS could be a real loose cannon and what he is doing in Yemen and Qatar and the talk on Iran has potential to add fuel to regional fire."

The site of a bombing by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa (AFP)

In a briefing ahead of the crown prince’s visit, the French presidency defended its export procedures.

“There is a very strict control of arms exports... which obeys very precise criteria, including the concern for situations in which civilian populations may be endangered," a French presidential source said.

A private letter sent to Macron from 12 international non-governmental organisations urged him to pressure MBS to ease a blockade on Yemeni ports and suspend French arms sales.

"It is a bit of a new method of cooperation with Saudi Arabia that relies less on contracts, admittedly important but intermittent, and which will translate into a common vision. This is the general tone that will be given," an official in the French presidency said.

Unlike many of its allies, French export licensing procedures have no parliamentary checks or balances. They are approved through a committee headed by the prime minister that includes the foreign, defence and economy ministries.

Details of licences are not public and, once approved, are rarely reviewed.