France becomes Europe's top arms exporter to Middle East

Purchases of combat aircraft by Qatar and Egypt help France overtake Russia in sales to region

France sold Rafale fighter jets to Qatar and Egypt as it became the world's second-biggest arms exporter after the US. AFP
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France has become the main European arms seller to the Middle East, overtaking Russia, according to new figures.

Sales of Rafale fighter aircraft to Qatar and Egypt have helped France become the world's second-biggest military exporter, after the US.

Italy also took up a greater role in the region, including with deliveries of frigates to Egypt and radar equipment to Bahrain.

Overall arms imports to the Middle East were lower in the period 2019 to 2023 than in the previous four years. About half came from the US.

The figures were revealed on Monday in an annual report on the arms trade by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"Despite an overall drop in arms imports to the Middle East, they remain high in some states, driven largely by regional conflicts and tensions," said Zain Hussain, a researcher at the institute.

"Major arms imported in the past 10 years have been used widely in conflicts in the region, including in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen."

Russia's arms exports halved, as it gears its economy towards supplying its own military during the war in Ukraine.

France moved into the gap, increasing its overall arms exports by 47 per cent. More than a third of its sales went to the Middle East.

The rise in French sales "was largely due to deliveries of combat aircraft to India, Qatar and Egypt," the institute said.

French exports between 2019 and 2023 included 36 aircraft delivered to Qatar and three warships sold to Egypt, according to SIPRI's database.

Sales to the Middle East come as France struggles to persuade allies in Nato to buy European, with some preferring off-the-shelf American or Israeli equipment.

France "is using the opportunity of strong global demand to boost its arms industry through exports," analyst Katarina Djokic said, with "particular success" selling warplanes outside Europe.

Egypt is expecting another 30 aircraft from France, and has also bought two frigates from Italy and two submarines from Germany.

The Middle East took up 71 per cent of Italian arms exports, as Italy's total sales almost doubled compared to 2015 to 2019.

Italy was the second-biggest arms supplier to Egypt, Kuwait and Turkey in the past four years. Qatar bought four Italian frigates and Egypt two.

Israel bought 30 per cent of its imported arms from Germany, although the US remains its biggest military supplier.

Germany's overall exports were down. It recently signalled it is open to lifting a veto on the sale of Eurofighter jets to Saudi Arabia.

The UK also sold less equipment. Its exports included the delivery of Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels to Bahrain.

Europe is striving to ramp up its longer-term arms production as war rages in Ukraine and Donald Trump puts America's support in doubt.

However, short-term needs have pushed up Europe's arms imports by 94 per cent, with air defence systems in high demand.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 11:38 AM