French seek lock on Persian Gulf satellite deals

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- The French government, fresh from securing a $913 million deal with the United Arab Emirates for two military satellites, is pushing hard to sell a military system to Saudi Arabia.

The French are driving to corner a strategic foothold for satellite business with Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf as they square off against Iran.


"To win these contracts and secure the future of its military space arm, France is ready to make major concessions both in terms of its satellite's ground resolution and its coverage area," Intelligence Online, a Paris-based website, reports.

Convincing the Saudis to buy a Pleiades surveillance satellite was one of the main objectives of French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian's visit to Riyadh earlier this month -- his third since May 2012 -- following the July signing of a memorandum of understanding.


The French have an edge in their negotiations with Riyadh.

In 2009, Paris provided the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a powerful largely tribal force separate from the regular army, with Helios imagery to aid SANG's operations against Yemeni Houthi rebels along the kingdom's mountainous southern border.

Le Drian was heavily involved in the July sale to the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikdoms, of two high-resolution Helios spy satellites.

They will be built by Astrium, the space division of the European aerospace and defense giant EADS, and Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between France's Thales and Finmeccanica of Italy.

The Helios is based on Astrium's highly successful Eurostar E3000 platform.

EADS has close ties to the Mubadala Development Co., the Emirates' investment arm which is heavily involved in the federation's drive to develop its own defense industry.

The French beat out Lockheed Martin of the United States, which defense analysts attributed largely to the French companies' involvement in the Emirates' $1.6 billion Yahsat communications satellite program launched in 2007.

The so-called Falcon Eye contract included an agreement between Paris and Doha for French expertise to assist the Emirates' military interpret the satellite imagery and to share received intelligence, French officials said at the time.


Securing that contract has given the French a clear lead in selling satellite systems to other states in the region which is heavily reliant on U.S. arms sales to counter the perceived threat from Iran and its missile-nuclear programs.

France has been a key supplier of military systems to the Emirates for many years.

This includes 390 Leclerc main battle tanks built by Giat Industries, which in 2006 became state-owned Nexter, and 50 Dassault Mirage 2000-9DAD/EAD combat jets.

The Saudis are also keen to develop their own satellite sector to complement their acquisition of advanced U.S. weapons systems to strengthen their military posture against Iran across the gulf.

France and the kingdom have been cooperating in the field of image intelligence for some 20 years. In the 1980s, Paris helped the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology develop an intelligence-oriented department to receive imagery from French satellites.

The French, more than other major Western defense industries, have been more flexible in providing military intelligence equipment to the Saudis than some of their rivals.

In the Falcon Eye deal, Paris, seeking to beat off the competition, agreed to reduce the ground resolution of satellites it exported to 50 centimeters, or 19-1/2 inches, instead of the internationally recognized 70 centimeters, or 27 inches.


"For satellite operators, the next objective is to obtain approval to export images with a resolution below 30 centimeters, or 11-2/3 inches, which would not only make it possible to see objects better but would also enable the viewer to discern a greater number of objects," Intelligence Online observed.

However, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is refusing to go below 50 centimeters.

"To date, no European government has gone against the U.S. and opened up the market, despite the growing pressure on satellite operators," Intelligence Online noted.

But it reported that "in certain particularly sensitive areas, like Iran, but also Afghanistan, the Emirates' armed forces will be offered an even lower resolution, probably closer to 38 centimeters," or nearly 15 inches.

Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate that borders Saudi Arabia, is also looking to have its own military surveillance satellite capability.

It too has been a regular buyer of French weapons, including Mirage 2000ED, SA-342 Gazelle helicopters and Combattante-III naval patrol craft.

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