France is on the verge of finalising a contract worth about 1bn euros ($1.1bn) for the sale of 24 Airbus-built military helicopters to Kuwait, a deal that highlights Paris’ growing commercial ties in the Middle East, officials said.
The contract – the latest to be agreed between Paris and a Gulf Arab state, comes after French President Francois Hollande was invited by Gulf Arab leaders in May to address their summit in Saudi Arabia, a rare privilege for a foreign head of state.
“In the framework of the defence partnership between France and Kuwait, the emir has expressed the wish … to equip his country’s air force with 24 Caracal type heavy helicopters. The contract will be signed soon,” Hollande’s office said after a telephone conversation between the French leader and Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah.
The French army uses the Caracal helicopter to transport soldiers including its special forces. It sold six EC725 Caracal to Tunisia at the end of 2014 for 300 millions euros as the North African state seeks to tackle Islamist militants on its borders.
A French Defence Ministry official said the Kuwait contract was worth about 1bn euros and was agreed during a visit by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Kuwait on June 6.
Over the past year, Paris has sealed more than $15bn dollars of military contracts in the region, including with Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The Riyadh summit, where Hollande first discussed the helicopter sale with Kuwait’s emir, also saw Riyadh and Paris confirm they were in talks over a major naval military contract.
Kuwait, and other Gulf Arab and Middle Eastern countries are looking to acquire new high-tech military equipment to protect themselves from neighbouring Iran and internal threats after the Arab Spring uprising.
Hollande, whose country is deemed to have the toughest stance among the six world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme, has also been able to nurture new links with the region in the face of what some Gulf countries perceive as disengagement on the part of traditional ally the United States.
“Arab countries clearly see that the United States is less interested and less present in the region so they need partners and the partner that seems most reliable today is France,” said a senior French official.