On 5 December 2018, in a lounge area at the Méridien Étoile Hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, an adviser to Saudi minister of state for African affairs Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al-Qattan confirmed to Admiral Édouard Guillaud, who at that time was the head of the French military exports company Office Français d’Exportation d’Armement (ODAS), that his country would commit $100m to help arm the G5 Sahel forces.
The sum was intended, following an agreement between France and Saudi Arabia, to help purchase French military equipment, such as Arquus-brand armoured vehicles (in use in Chad for several years), which would be delivered to G5 Sahel forces. However, a year and a half later, the funds are still sitting in Riyadh’s coffers.
A military and diplomatic quarrel
According to our information, the reason behind the withholding of funds goes back to a military and diplomatic quarrel between France and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. Indeed, in 2016, a $3bn contract signed by Paris and Riyadh in 2014 – known as Donas – was abandoned.
The Saudis had committed to spending this amount on French military supplies for the Lebanese army. However, after developing closer ties with Israel, the Saudis became concerned that the weapons could end up in the hands of Hezbollah. They then halted the deal.
They were also wary of certain French intermediaries working with Édouard Guillaud – the former head of the personal military staff of President Jacques Chirac and later President Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as the former chief of the defence staff under Sarkozy and President François Hollande – who had ties to Lebanese officers who were themselves close to the Shi’a Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Since then, the Saudis have submitted several orders to the French to equip their own army, thereby offsetting a portion of the Lebanon deal – around two-thirds of what was agreed to under the Saudi-French military contract.
MbS’s rise to power changed the game
Nevertheless, the French government and the ODAS network (which includes shareholders such as Airbus, Thales and Arquus) hope to encourage the Saudis to pursue their commitment further and propose a new aid package for the G5 Sahel operations.
The problem is that when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) came to power at the end of June 2017, the terms and conditions applicable to arms deals changed. Now, each agreement must be negotiated with Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI), a company chaired by Ahmed Al-Khateeb and Mohammad bin Abdullah Al-Ayesh, the assistant minister of defence and a close ally of MbS.
According to our sources, this is part of Al-Ayesh’s strategy to pare down certain Saudi programmes over which he had no control. And in the case of French agreements, he sought to be free of the ODAS network, which is currently being wound up (scheduled to be ended in 2022) and headed by Lieutenant General Daniel Argenson.
France is actively working to set up an organisation able to collaborate with SAMI, and France’s armed forces ministry, led by Florence Parly, has drafted several memos on the matter.
Riyadh, on the other hand, is looking to impose its own terms and conditions. The Saudis are requiring France to present it with three separate proposals regarding how the $100m in funds for the G5 Sahel will be used.
However, according to our sources, the French did not meet this requirement. Several proposals were communicated, but they reportedly only concern slightly more than half of the order volume. The rest, which must reflect the purchase of Arquus vehicles, is problematic because Saudi Arabia has not received a competing bid. The entire $100m is thus being withheld.
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