Foreign policy insiders in Washington are fond of describing France as a uniquely amoral weapons-trafficking nation that will sell anything to anyone. This harsh judgement seemed to be confirmed last August, when the latest Congressional Research Service report on arms transfers revealed that France had replaced the United States as the leading exporter of arms to the Third World, and in a decisive fashion had grabbed 45 percent of all new arms agreements with developing nations in 1994, nearly twice the level of sales registered by the outgoing titleholder.

Joel Johnson, chief Washington lobbyist for the Aerospace Industries Association, immediately seized the occasion to press for a US government-backed arms export loan guarantee fund to help US weapons merchants. Sounding like an overwrought door-to-door salesman, Johnson told the New York Times that, despite the fund’s open-ended multibillion dollar tag, “We’re not asking for much.”

France’s rise to number one will no doubt encourage other second-tier arms suppliers such as Britain, Germany, Russia and China to redouble their own efforts to win the few big contracts yet to be secured in a saturated global weapons market. Many of those deals will be struck in the Middle East. Despite the Israeli-Palestinian agreements and the growing financial difficulties of the once cash-rich Persian Gulf oil states, the region remains the biggest single market for advanced armaments.

The French lead is, however, almost certainly a fleeting one. Nearly half of France’s estimated $11.4 billion in sales to the Third World for 1994 was accounted for by just two blockbuster sales to the Middle East, a $1.4 billion sales of 12 Mirage 2000-5 fighter aircraft to Qatar and a $4 billion order from Saudi Arabia for three La Fayette-class combat ships. The economic realities of the region dictate that deals on this scale will be fewer and farther between in the future, and France had particular advantages in pursuing these contracts that may not be present in the next round of major competitions. Qatar has had a “special” defense relationship with France ever since it obtained independence from Britain in 1971, purchasing roughly 70 percent of its arsenal from France firms; and the Saudi combat ship competition involved a class of vessel that the United States has not offered for export (at least not yet), thereby eliminating a potentially formidable rival.

Richard Grimmett, the author of the Congressional Research Service report, still ranks France in the second tier of arms suppliers to the Third World. In Grimmett’s assessment, the US stands alone in the first tier on the basis of dominance of the market throughout this decade: Since 1991 Washington has entered into agreements for over $48 billion in new arms sales to the developing world, more than twice the level of French sales over the same time period. Grimmett warns, though, that “as competition over a shrinking international arms market intensified, it is likely that suppliers in these two tiers will regularly shift in their rankings relative to one another.”

The question is how far major supplier nations like France and the US will go in “sweetening” contracts in an era where there are no longer enough deals to go around. Among the perks offered as adjunct to major Middle East sales in recent years are access to top-of-the-lines weapons, creative credit arrangements built around extremely forgiving repayment schedules, industrial “offsets” designed to generate military industrial employment in the purchasing country, and “defense cooperation” agreements that implicitly or explicitly commit the US, France and Britain to come to the defense of the sheikhdoms of the Gulf against foes from within or from the outside.

While these generous offers of economic, political and military support may help close deals in the short term, they represent a disastrous miscalculation of the region’s genuine security needs in the long run. The November 1995 bombing of the Saudi Arabian National Guard headquarters (and the neighboring building housing US contractor personnel involved in training the guard) is the latest sign of the potential for internal upheaval that is at least in part a legacy of a decades-long policy of strengthening the military forces of the region at the expense of political participation. The lesson to be learned from France’s short tenure as the top arms trading nation is not “how to catch up with the French,” but how to convince all the major weapons-supplying nations to fashion a strategy for reducing the flow of arms to the region before these weapons are used yet again in another destructive conflict.

How to cite this article:

William D. Hartung "Keeping Up with the French," Middle East Report 197 (November/December 1995).
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