« Macron – MbS: A murderous connection » is a series about the relations between the French State and Saudi Arabia. It focuses on the relationships between their current heads of States, Emmanuel Macron and Mohammed bin Salman, on the war in Yemen fueled by French arms and on Saudi oil in the context of a climate and energy crisis – Nicolas Barbier, researcher and journalist (PhD in geography).
I.1. A « CONCERN »
WHAT SHOULD WE REMEMBER ABOUT THE « OUTSPOKEN », TENSE AND SOMEWHAT GROTESQUE DIALOGUE of November 2018 between French president Emmanuel Macron and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)? By all accounts, it is not a turning point in the Franco-Saudi relations. At the time, the media had just released the CIA’s information that the prince ordered the elimination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This hapless man was a moderate critic of the Saudi kingdom. At the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, several Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi before dismembering him (Dawsey, Harris et Miller, 2018).
During a meeting at the G20 summit in November 2018, Emmanuel Macron expressed his « concern » to MbS (dialogue with inaudible parts):
MbS: Don’t worry. — Macron: I do worry. I am worried… You never listen to me. — MbS: No, I listen, of course. It’s OK, I can deal with it. […] — Macron: I am a man of my word (Press TV, 2018).
In 2021, the director of the U.S. National Intelligence slightly changed their version of the story regarding the prince’s involvement: MbS would have approved either the capture or the killing of Khashoggi. This different version has not been explained. The U.S. government refuses to release their full report on the matter. For its part, the French government is not very keen on clarifying what really happened. In July 2022 when MbS met Macron in Paris, an official presidential report welcomed « mutual trust in the dialogue between France and Saudi Arabia[:] The French president addressed the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia ». End of the story? (Élysée, 2022; Knight Institute, 2022; Office of the director of National Intelligence, 2021)
Four years earlier, newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron started his trust relationship with MbS, the highest ranking representative of the vast Saudi kingdom that he now governs. One of the key components of this relationship has got to do with deliveries of French arms. As soon as he was elected, the French president proved himself to be a great arms dealer. Among various types of arms (see I.2), France under Macron is about to complete the delivery of 129 caesar canons to Saudi Arabia. Unlike other arms sold to Saudis, such as attack helicopters, missile launchers, etc., the French government is not transparent on the sale of those potentially very agressive canons (Disclose, 2019 [a]; Disclose, 2019 [b]; Ministère des armées, 2022, p.80, 121-122).
In Yemen in the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, Saudis have been using arms they bought from the French. They have been using them against the Houthis who make up a large minority in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is the leader of an evolving regional coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan (as well as, for a few years, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, etc.). Since 2015, the Saudi coalition, supported by France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, has been trying to defend Yemen’s ruling regime against a Houthi military offensive supported by Iran. The Saudis mainly want to avoid two things:
- They want to prevent the Houthi – Iran alliance from extending its influence and role in the Arabian Peninsula.
- They do not want the transit of Saudi oil tankers along the Bab-el-Manded detroit and southwestern Yemeni coast to be threatened.
The Saudi army has led multiple offensives against the Houthis in Yemen during which they have also bombed areas inhabited by civilians (Direction du renseignement militaire, 2018, p.7-11; Disclose, 2019 [a]; Disclose, 2019 [b] ; Robinson, 2022; FCNL, 2023).
In February 2023, despite the intervention of the Saudi coalition, the Houthis control most of southwestern Yemen (but not the Bab-el-Mandeb detroit), including Sana’a, the capital of the country (see the map below). After a short-lived cease-fire in 2022, the intensity of fighting is low in early 2023. Nevertheless, the conflict, the risk of military escalation and the humanitarian crisis continue. According to the United Nations, up to 400,000 people may have died because of the war in Yemen since 2014. Most of them died due to the lack of water, food and healthcare caused by war (CAAT, 2022; Nations Unies, 2023; Robinson, 2022).
French, German and U.S. military equipment, used by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In this series, I just focus on French military equipment:
- For instance, French military helicopters and ships have been deployed as part of the naval blockade that prevents certain commodities from reaching the Yemeni population. Overall, French military equipment has contributed to disrupt humanitarian assistance vital to Yemenis.
- French war planes equipped with a laser targeting system have been used by the United Arab Emirates during the war.
- French caesar canons, sold to Saudis and positioned in Saudi Arabia near its border with Yemen, can reach targets inside Yemen.
According to existing estimates, the Saudi coalition would be responsible for most of the 15,000 civilians killed during military opeations in Yemen (CAAT, 2022; Direction du renseignement militaire, 2018, p.7-11; Disclose, 2019 [a]; Disclose, 2019 [b]; Emons, 2019).
I.2. TRUSTING THE AGRESSOR
Would Emmanuel Macron’s « concern », expressed to MbS in 2018, extend to Yemeni civilians? In 2019, the French president declared that he « asked for the assurance that the [French] arms could not be used against [Yemeni] civilians. I got it. » Which kind of assurance is he talking about? The one he got from a « trustworthy » MbS? If Saudis did use French arms against civilians anyway, what could be the legal and political risks for Emmanuel Macron? Probably none. Apart from civilians, our president does not care about Houthi soldiers that would be ripped to pieces by French arms whose sales he authorized. He does not mention either cases in which these arms would damage or destroy infrastructures or areas that allow civilians to survive. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, it is estimated that air raids targeted hospitals 35 times, water and electricity facilities more than 150 times, and food storage facilities 67 times (Le Monde, 2019; Yemen data project, Non-military table, 2023).
In order to clear his name in one sentence, the French president claims that « Saudi Arabia [and the United Arab Emirates] are allies of France and allies in the fight against terrorism. » Would Emmanuel Macron dare to call the Houthi movement a terrorist organization? Usually, Emmanuel Macron likes nuances. In this case, he is anything but clear. If the answer is yes, then he considers about a third of the Yemeni population as a terrorist group. In any case, France under Macron treats Houthis as a group whose military capability should be annihilated (Daily Sabah, 2019; Wilson center, 2022).
Among Houthi military actions that could potentially be labelled terrorist, one in January 2022 against the United Arab Emirates deserves some attention. That one targeted several tanker trucks in the Emirates. It was considered as worthy of interest by the Houthis in order to reduce the Emirates’ military activity against them. The Houthi air attack claimed three civilian lives. As close allies with the Emirates, the Saudis retaliated by bombing a neighborhood in Sana’a, killing fourteen Yemenis, including thirteen civilians, three families and one Houthi military officer. Emmanuel Macron strongly condemned the Houthi « terrorist attack » against the Emirates. But he did not have a word for the civilians killed by the Saudi air strike. A few months later, when Macron met MbS in Paris, « the French president and crown prince talked about the means to pursue the coordination regarding the fight against terrorism. » By the way, the Houthis are not kind to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula whose influence they try to limit (AFP, 2022 [a]; Élysée, 2022; Euractiv, 2022; Franceinfo, 2022 ; Kutsch, 2015 ; Zimmerman, 2022).
The Houthis have established a firm foothold in Yemen from a territorial, cultural and historical perspective. They belong to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam which is about 1,200 years old. Zaydis created an Imamate and governed Yemen for nearly 1,000 years, until 1962. Seldom was the Zaydi hegemony interrupted, except mostly by the Ottomans from 1585 to 1608 and from 1873 to 1918. But the Houthis benefited neither from the division of Yemen into two parts in 1962 nor its reunification in 1990. They wanted to be autonomous in northwestern Yemen. Instead, the Houthis were frustrated, both economically and politically. So they began a rebellion that has ratcheted up since the 1990s (Wilson center, 2022; Zimmerman, 2022).
For the last eight years, the war in Yemen has devastated a previously fragile economy. The scarcity of arable lands, limited access to water, healthcare and electricity, and the weaknesses of the banking, energy and transportation sectors hampered the Yemeni economy before the war. All these problems have become much more acute with the war. As is often the case, the most vulnerable people have suffered the most. For example, 46 percent of 5-year-old Yemenis are malnourished. International aid does not meet the vital needs of the country. By supporting the Saudi war effort against the Houthis and by minimizing their assistance to the Yemeni population, Emmanuel Macron and the French State share responsibility for this situation (Al-Sakkaf, 2022; Al-Tairi, 2022, p.12; BTI, 2023; Coface, 2023; MSF, 2022; Wilson center, 2022; World Bank, 2023 [a]).
In September 2022, the French ministry of Europe and foreign affairs praised itself for an annual humanitarian aid distributed to Yemen that was worth 14.5 million euros. This amount of money represents less than 1.5 percent of the average yearly value of French arms sold to Saudi Arabia between 2012 and 2021. The ministry went on to declare that « France is fully mobilized to support the Yemeni population » (Ministère des armées, 2022, p.80 ; Sénat, 2022).
For the French government, unlike the paltry aid to Yemen, the highly profitable military support to the Saudi ally is not anecdotal. A 2022 report from the French ministry of armies does not try to hide this. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia purchased more than 10 billion euros worth of French arms between 2012 and 2021. The Saudis are the fourth biggest importers of French arms (the Egyptian dictatorship being ranked first). They have been France’s good clients for a while. Arms sales to the Saudis under socialist president François Hollande (2012-2017) exceeded those of president Macron. From the outset of the war in Yemen, François Hollande staunchly took sides with the Saudi coalition in its offensive against the Houthis (Ministère des armées, 2022, p.80, 127; Taleb, 2015).
Under Macron and in 2021 alone, Saudi Arabia bought from the « country of human rights » (as France is often called) 28 anti-tank portable missile launchers, 4 missile launchers of another type, 3 shooting facilities, 5 attack helicopters and 18 large calibre artillery systems (not counting other arms that the French State would refuse to disclose). In the Arabian Peninsula, France has been « sprinkling » other members of the Saudi coalition against the Houthis with powerful arms. For instance, the United Arab Emirates are the fifth largest buyer of French arms (Disclose, 2019 [a]; Ministère des armées, 2022, p.80, 121-122, 127).
By exporting lots of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Emmanuel Macron and the French State have knowingly fueled the hawkish and murderous actions of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman in Yemen. In the eyes of French president Emmanuel Macron, the personal involvement of MbS in the neutralization of Saudi political opponents or simple critics should interfere neither in lucrative arm contracts nor other French interests in Arabian lands. Before focusing on these interests, part two of this series will look into the youth of the two statesmen.
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Al-Sakkaf, 2022. Democratizing Development in Yemen: Beyond Food Aid. Wilson center. Webpage viewed on 2/10/2023.
Al-Tairi, 2022. The road transport sector in Yemen: critical issues and priority policies. Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, DeepRoot Consulting et Carpo. Webpage viewed on 2/10/2023.
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Zimmerman, 2022. Amid Yemen’s Truce, al Qaeda Threatens to Return. American Enterprise Institute. Webpage viewed on 2/10/2023.
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