Now we know how France secured a $3 billion arms deal from Saudi Arabia – by bestowing a senior Saudi prince with the Legion of Honor. For many French citizens the Legion of Honor symbolizes France’s national soul. And now the French government has put a grubby price tag on it.
The move by Paris to grasp the chance of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia also comes a week after the European Union parliament voted for an embargo on weapons supply to the kingdom over mounting human rights concerns.
Again, the French authorities – despite lofty proclamations about human rights and international law – don’t seem to have any scruples when it comes to clinching a $3 billion arms contract.
That contract was reportedly in the balance last week because of a diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, where the French weapons, paid for by the Saudis, were destined for.
Then, to the relief of the French government, the Saudis announced that they were going ahead with the arms purchase. In the new arrangement, the Saudis said that they would be taking consignment of the weapons supply from France – for their own use, thus cutting out the Lebanese national army, which had been originally designated as the beneficiary of the defense upgrade.
A day later, on Friday, Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef is received in Paris at the French presidential Élysée Palace and duly awarded the Legion of Honor.
To ascribe coincidence to these developments would be impossibly naive. The quiet, almost secretive, way in which the heir to the Saudi throne was awarded the honor shows that the Paris authorities knew that granting of the medal could prove to be embarrassing.
News of the accolade only came out through reports that were carried in the Saudi official media outlet, whose House of Saud rulers were of course delighted with the grand French «honor».
France’s presidential office was obliged to confirm the award two days later – on Sunday – after the news had been broken by the Saudi media. Why the coy official French manner? No doubt, Paris was all too aware that it would appear that the gong was bestowed because it was a tawdry pay-off to the Saudis for their arms purchase going through.
The awarding of the prestigious French medal – considered to be the nation’s highest honor – has sparked public furor in France and around the world because of Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record. «Disgraceful», «Shame», «Worthless», are just a few of the words of condemnation to have erupted across news and social media.
On the same weekend that the Saudi minister – a nephew of King Salman – received his French honor, the absolute, unelected rulers executed the 70th person so far this year from among the country’s burgeoning prison population. Most executions in the oil-rich kingdom are carried out by beheading with a sword. Often the decapitated corpse is subsequently hung by crucifixion in public view as a macabre warning to would-be offenders.
There is also widespread public outrage over Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bombardment of neighboring Yemen where thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi-led air strikes over the past year. The Saudi campaign – supported by the US, British and French governments – claims to be aimed at putting down an «Iranian-backed rebellion» led by Houthi fighters.
But those claims are dubious. Yemen looks to many observers like a case of illegal foreign aggression by the Saudis on the poorest country in the Arab region. In any case, as the United Nations has declared in several dire humanitarian warnings, most of Yemen’s 24 million population are suffering from a Saudi military blockade, with reports of children starving from lack of food, water and medicines.
Furthermore, while the French presidency claimed that the Legion of Honor was awarded to Mohammed bin Nayef, the country’s interior minister, for his role in the fight against terrorism, the official citation strains credibility and contempt.
There is abundant evidence to show that the Wahhabi Islamist Saudi rulers have been prominent financial and ideological sponsors of al-Qaeda-linked terror groups over many years. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted the Saudi terror connection back in 2009 in diplomatic cables leaked by whistleblower source Wikileaks. These same Saudi-backed terror groups are a central element in the Western-backed covert war for regime change in Syria since March 2011.
But getting back to the French-Saudi arms deal. Only last week that deal looked set to be cancelled after the Saudi rulers announced that they were not going ahead with a $4 billion aid grant to Lebanon’s government. That offer was reportedly made to Lebanon back in November 2014 by Saudi Arabia. Most of it – some $3 billion – was slated to be spent on French weapons and other military equipment in order to upgrade the Lebanese national army.
Last month, the Saudis backed away from the grant to Lebanon because they claimed that the Beirut-based Hezbollah Shia resistance movement was exerting too much influence over the Lebanese government, of which it is an elected coalition party.
The Saudis were irked, for instance, after the Lebanese government declined to support Riyadh in denouncing Iran over an attack by protesters on its embassy in Tehran. That incident followed the execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January this year, along with 46 other prisoners.
The real reason for Saudi petulance is that Hezbollah militia fighting in Syria have been a major military factor in why Syrian president Assad’s army has managed to turn the strategic tables on the anti-government insurgents there. Russian air power and Syrian army ground forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian militia have salvaged Syria from a proxy war for regime change that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Western governments had fomented over the past five years.
Cancellation of the military grant to Lebanon by the Saudis was also accompanied by other diplomatic slights towards Beirut, including travel warnings and a fresh declaration by Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf cronies against Hezbollah as a «terrorist organization».
Thus there can be little question that the abrupt Saudi cut-off of military aid to Lebanon is part of its proxy war in Syria.
That cut-off, however, appeared to leave France out in the cold as the weapons supplier. Until, that is, Saudi Arabia subsequently announced that it was going ahead with the French arms purchase, with the equipment being shipped to Saudi Arabia instead of Lebanon.
With the French economy languishing under sluggish growth, sagging trade and budget deficits and record unemployment, the news of the Saudi $3 billion arms deal would have been met with intense relief in Paris.
And so the red carpet at the Élysée Palace was rolled out – «discreetly» mind you – for the Saudi dictator’s nephew.
The Legion of Honor is supposed to be France’s highest national accolade, awarded to outstanding citizens and foreign dignitaries. It was created in 1802 by emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
At the same time that Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef received his medal from French president Francois Hollande in Paris, the Legion of Honor was also awarded separately to British veterans of the Second World War for their courage during the D-Day landings in 1944.
No wonder then that the juxtaposition of the awards has sparked public anger in France and England, with protesters claiming that the accolade has been grossly devalued for those deserving recipients – men and women who gave their lives to save France and Europe from fascist despotism.
If the Legion of Honor is taken as a symbol of French national soul, then it is understandable that many are disgusted that France’s soul is flogged for an arms deal with the one of the world’s most despotic regimes.
It should not be surprising, too, that French president Hollande and his government are viewed with such increasing contempt, both nationally and internationally.
Hollande’s corroding credibility is a problem that is shared by other Western governments, Washington and London in particular, who are likewise seen to be corrupt. Because, like Paris, they are consorting with despotic regimes for the same sordid self-interests of selling weapons and trying to destabilize foreign states.