The corruption behind sale of French tanks used in Yemen war

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Documents obtained by Wikileaks and shared with Mediapart, German publication Der Spiegel and Italy's La Repubblica have revealed a state secret: the hidden corruption behind the sale of French tanks to the United Arab Emirates. The tanks involved in that deal have since been deployed in the current war in Yemen, a conflict which, according to the United Nations, has led to the worse humanitarian crisis in the world. Fabrice Arfi reports.

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The French tanks deployed over the last three years by the United Arab Emirates in the Yemen, in a war which has already led to 10,000 deaths, most of them civilians, hide a deep secret.

It is a state secret that goes back a quarter of a century.

Its revelation today shines a light on an unprecedented admission of state corruption involving a French government arms company which paid 200 million dollars of black money into bank accounts based in tax havens, according to documents obtained by Wikileaks and shared with Mediapart, German publication Der Spiegel and Italy's La Repubblica, and authenticated by an independent investigation.

These documents offer a rare glimpse into the secrets of one of the largest arms deals signed by France, which is today the third largest exporter of arms in the world.

A Leclerc tank sold to the United Arab Emirates by France. © DR A Leclerc tank sold to the United Arab Emirates by France. © DR
The Leclerc battle tanks sold by France to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the beginning of the 1990s were made by Groupement Industriel des Armements Terrestres (GIAT), now known as Nexter, in which the French state had a 100% stake. The delivery of the tanks began in the early 2000s but were only used in combat for the first time in 2015 at the start of the war in Yemen, as stated on several specialist websites (see for example here and here).

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has been between Houthi rebels supported by Iran and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE seeking to shore up the regime of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. According to the United Nations the coalition, armed by France in particular, has “caused most direct civilian casualties”. The UN also fears war crimes may have been committed and points out that air strikes have hit “residential areas, markets ... weddings...and even medical facilities”. According to the non-governmental organisation Save The Children more than five million children in Yemen are under risk of famine because of the war. The UN says the conflict has led to the worst humanitarian criss in the world.

At the time, the sale of the Leclerc tanks to the UAE was described in the French press as the “deal of the century”. With some justification, as the contract, signed on April 6th, 1993, one week after conservative prime minster Édouard Balladur formed a government under socialist president François Mitterrand, involved the delivery of 388 tanks, 46 armoured vehicles and ammunition. The total value was 3.6 billion dollars though this was later reduced slightly to 3.2 billion dollars.

Middleman Abbas Yousef Al Yousef. © DR Middleman Abbas Yousef Al Yousef. © DR
However, the secret negotiations behind the deal had begun two years earlier, according to the documents acquired by Wikileaks. Back in January 1991 the French government under socialist prime minister Michel Rocard had, via state defence firm GIAT, commissioned an emissary with very good connections in Abu Dhabi. His name was Abbas Ibrahim Yousef Al Yousef.

Al Yousef, who comes from the same village as Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the man behind the creation of the UAE and its president from 1971 to 2004, started his career as a fighter pilot. He married a woman living in Saudi Arabia and his two children have been educated in the United States. His main claim to fame in the UAE air force was as flying instructor to Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose older brother, Khalifa bin Zayed, is the current president of the UAE. It was a useful connection for Al Yousef.

In addition to his military duties Abbas Al Yousef, who has the rank of colonel, has developed a prolific business in arms contracts. According to a French industrialist who knows him well, over time Al Yousef gradually became the preferred intermediary for many French defence firms in the UAE, such as Thalès, Dassault and Airbus. The list included GIAT, too, where he is said to have developed a solid friendship with a commercial director.

In 1991 one of Al Yousef's offshore companies, Kenoza Industrial Consulting & Management Inc.,which was registered by a Panamanian firm in the British Virgin Islands, one of the worst tax havens in the world, obtained from GIAT an agreement to pay 234 million dollars for the future sale of the French tanks to the UAE.

No information about this black money would ever have filtered out had it not been for a dispute between Al Yousef's company and GIAT. Between 2008 and 2010 this case was heard before the arbitration court in Paris – a private arbitration system to resolve commercial disputes – forcing the French defence company to reveal the precise nature of the intermediary's work: corruption.

One of the cover pages from the case involving GIAT and its former middleman. © DR One of the cover pages from the case involving GIAT and its former middleman. © DR
By March 2000 Al Youself and his company had received only 195 million dollars of the 234 million dollars he had been promised and he eventually took GIAT to the court to get the outstanding 40 million dollars which they were refusing to pay.

GIAT were quite candid at the arbitration court in Paris. Acknowledging that the level of the payments to him were “totally out of proportion with any of the services which [Al Yousef] may have provided” the French company claimed that its middleman committed acts of “corruption”, according to the terms of the final arbitration court agreement in September 30th, 2010. Even more candidly GIAT insisted that Kenoza, Al Yousef's offshore company, “intended to commit and indeed committed corruption acts” in relation to UAE civil servants.

These are unprecedented claims. Al Yousef himself strongly denied to the court that the “purpose” of the commission deal was to “make corrupting payments to UAE civil servants or that [the company] made such payments”.



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