Paris — France’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia rose 50% in 2018 despite the government calling for an end to the “dirty war” in Yemen, according to figures released on Tuesday.

An annual government report showed that total arms sales rose 30% to €9.1bn in 2018, driven by a sharp increase in sales to European allies.

France sold about €1bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, with the main item being patrol boats. A partial naval blockade of ports controlled by the Houthi movement is one of the tactics used by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that has been criticised by campaigners for worsening a humanitarian crisis.

“With such transfers revealing a geopolitical alliance with these regimes and total violation of international commitments, one can only expect worsening conflicts in Yemen or the Horn of Africa, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are beginning to redeploy in partnership with France,” said Tony Fortin of the Paris-based Observatory for Armamanent.

The French government says its arms sales are governed by strict procedures in line with international treaties.

“Maintaining economic relations with these countries means keeping a presence in key regions for our security interests and our energy supplies. It is also about fighting terrorism and protecting our nationals on the ground,” armed forces minister Florence Parly said in a preface to the report.

France is among the world’s leading arms exporters, its sales surging in recent years due to its first lucrative overseas contracts for Rafale fighter jets, notably to India and Qatar, as well as a multibillion submarine deal with Australia.

Paris has sought to increase its diplomatic weight in the Middle East through the sale of warships, tanks, artillery and munitions to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

That has brought with it criticism from nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and some legislators, who have urged it to scale back support for Arab states that are part of the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen against fighters of the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that controls the capital.

French arms exports to the Middle East rose to €4bn from €3.9bn in 2018, but because of bigger increases elsewhere now make up a smaller share of the total.

The bulk of those sales were to Qatar, which ordered Rafale-fighter jets and helicopters accounting for about €2.4bn. Qatar is a rival of Saudi Arabia and not part of the coalition fighting in Yemen.

In contrast, sales to Egypt, one of France’s top customers for the past five years, stagnated at about €270m.  Orders from the UAE, the other key member of the coalition in Yemen, fell sharply.

France has also been pushing for more sales within the EU as it looks to counter an aggressive US sales policy  and increase the bloc’s security independence.

The report showed a stark improvement on that front with 25% of orders coming from Europe compared with only 10% the previous year, including from Belgium and Spain, which bought helicopters and heavy armoured vehicles.