An Expanding Transregional Network: France’s Growing Role in the Gulf
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has made its foreign policy far more proactive across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). France’s more traditional activism in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Levant is now entering the Gulf, increasing the importance of strengthening its relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Iraq.
There are two main reasons that France’s interactions with the GCC members will be under the spotlight. First, there is Brexit. The United Kingdom (UK) has long been the European Union (EU) member state which enjoyed the most privileged relationship with GCC states, but following the UK’s departure, Paris is now well-positioned to occupy this status. Under Macron, France seeks to take a leadership role in the foreign policy of the post-Brexit EU. It is the bloc’s only member which has demonstrated some willingness to deploy significant military assets to the MENA region, which is particularly important considering that GCC governments’ agendas prioritize security guarantees from partners.
Second, France’s MENA foreign policy is currently on a collision course with Turkey’s regional plans at a time in which Ankara is also looking to increase its influence in the Gulf. A particularly difficult relationship between the leaders of France and Turkey, escalating as far as personal insults, is worsening tensions between Paris and Ankara.
UAE, Probably the Strongest GCC Partner to France
Within the GCC and arguably the Arab world at large, the UAE is France’s closest partner. In recent years, France and the UAE have cooperated closely on numerous foreign policy dossiers. Their shared perceptions of Islamist groups and the threat of Turkey’s regional rise has fostered such bilateral cooperation. Paris-Abu Dhabi synergy is most evident when it comes to Libya, the Sahel, the Eastern Mediterranean, and freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.
In Libya, France is the only EU member actively involved in the conflict on the side of the Cyrenaica-based General Khalifa Haftar, who receives strong support from the Emiratis. In the Sahel, Abu Dhabi is a key financial supporter of France’s G5 initiative to strengthen the military forces of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in their fight against jihadist terrorism alongside some 5,000 troops deployed by Paris to the region.
When it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean, both France and the UAE firmly support Greece and Cyprus. Amid mounting tensions with Turkey over competing maritime claims on the extension of the respective Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which involves rights over an area rich in natural gas, the UAE has been the most politically, diplomatically, and even militarily involved of the GCC states. Notably, in August 2020, Paris and Abu Dhabi staged joint military drills with Athens to deter Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In addition to frequent arms deals between the two countries, France-UAE defense cooperation has certainly benefited from the presence of Camp de la Paix (or Peace Camp), a French naval base and a military training camp which has been in Abu Dhabi since 2009. The base currently serves as the headquarters of a French-led EU mission to ensure safe shipping in Strait of Hormuz, following repeated attacks and tensions in the area in 2019.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s (MbZ) strong condemnation of recent terrorist attacks in France during a phone call with President Macron underscores the close relationship between the UAE and France. This show of support follows Abu Dhabi’s decision to side with Paris as Macron engaged in a war of words with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the French president’s controversial remarks about Islam in early October 2020.
A Growing Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Throughout 2020, France and Saudi Arabia have attempted to strengthen bilateral ties at all levels. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s January 2020 visit to Riyadh and to the Mada’in Saleh archaeological site, where a French consortium is working to develop a major tourism hub, marked a decisive step in advancing cultural cooperation at the bilateral level. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud traveled to Paris in July to offer Riyadh’s political cooperation and coordination on delicate North Africa dossiers such as Libya and Tunisia, ultimately reciprocating Le Drian’s visit to the Kingdom. Bilateral discussions have also outlined the growing interest of French businesses in future opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” economic diversification program.
Arguably, France’s readiness to increase its military presence in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability to external threats make recent defense deals between Paris and Riyadh particularly important to advancing bilateral ties. Following the Iran-orchestrated attacks against Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facilities, France deployed the “Jaguar Task Force” and an advanced radar system on the Kingdom’s eastern coast to support Riyadh’s air and missile defenses in January 2020. Also in January, Saudi Arabia began inducting its HSI 32 interceptor vessels, part of a 480 million USD deal signed between Riyadh and the French shipyard CMN in 2018 for the construction of 39 HSI32 interceptors for Saudi Arabia’s navy. Crucially, the agreement also involves the assembling of some vessels in the Kingdom as part of a technology transfer program agreed by Paris and Riyadh.
France’s increasingly friendly relationship with the Kingdom is evident by Macron’s decision to allow Riyadh’s military forces to train on French soil with the arms used in the war in Yemen. Given that the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is markedly unpopular and controversial throughout the West, such French support for Riyadh in Yemen truly underscores the strength of bilateral relations. Additionally, as recently as late October, Saudi Arabia did not join calls by other Muslim states for action against images being displayed in France of Prophet Mohammad. Instead, Riyadh’s state media released a statement to condemn any incitement to hatred, violence, and extremism directed towards France. This sentiment is consistent with the efforts of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS), to depict Saudi Arabia as increasingly “moderate” and “tolerant”.
U.S. Retreat Gives France an Opportunity in Iraq
Macron’s visit to Baghdad in September 2020 was a sign of the importance France sees in its future relationship with Iraq. With Iraqi officials adapting to a lightening U.S. military footprint in their country, Baghdad is working to diversify its security partnerships with more powers. France is a part of this equation. This orientation fits into Macron’s quest to fill a void created by the U.S.’s diminishing credibility as a superpower, particularly during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Yet analysts are skeptical about Paris’s abilities to gain much more clout in Iraq. According to the Arab Center’s Joe Macaron, “France has no clear game plan in Iraq, and it will be difficult for Paris to play a larger role since it neither has the influence nor the desire and capabilities to play that role.”
When it comes to Paris countering Ankara, Iraq is probably not an area where France will succeed. But it is relevant to France and Turkey’s competition throughout the Arab region. “Turkey is using fire power in northern Iraq while France is only offering soft power to Baghdad,” explained Ruba Husari, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. “That’s not enough to counter Turkey’s influence on the ground. But in the regional context, having a bigger role in Iraq helps counter Turkey’s expansive role in Libya.”
As Macron continues his pivot to the Middle East, France will pursue its own national interests in Iraq. As a European country that has suffered from Da’esh attacks in the past, French officials have vested stakes in preventing the so-called Islamic State from restoring its power in Iraq. Further, the potential for French-Iraqi energy cooperation at a time in which Iraq copes with electricity shortages, as well as French support for a metro railway system in the Iraqi capital, are encouraging Paris’s desire to further expand its influence throughout Iraq.
Arms Purchases Dominate Relations with Qatar
Despite being closely allied with Turkey, Qatar has successfully managed to develop deep relations with France. Defense has been an important sector in their bilateral ties. Since Macron took office, Qatar has purchased from France 36 Dassault Rafale fighter jets, which are Paris’s most advanced military aircraft. Also under Macron, the two countries signed a deal in February 2019 to strengthen cooperation on security- and economic-related matters. Crucially, Doha’s leadership welcomed France’s readiness to increase its engagements with Qatar, particularly given the realities of the blockade that began in mid-2017.
Macron’s positive engagements with Doha have contributed to Qatar awarding France’s energy giant, Total SE, with a lucrative 470 million USD contract in January 2020 to build the country’s first solar energy plant. This same year, Paris and Doha have launched the Qatar-France Year of Culture 2020 to promote cooperation between museums and cultural associations of the two countries as Doha continues to promote its image within France, a process which arguably began in 2012 when the Qatar Investment Authority purchased the French football club Paris St-Germain.
Up until very recently, Libya was the only issue of the MENA region where there was major disagreement between Doha and Paris. Despite the conflict in Libya, to date, Doha has avoided openly siding with Erdoğan against Macron on other foreign policy dossiers. However, following the war of words between France’s and Turkey’s presidents, Qatar’s government endorsed the boycott of French products launched by a number of Qatari firms and promoted by the state-owned Qatar University.
A Stable Relationship with Kuwait
Recently, Kuwait has been very successful in improving its relationship with the EU. Brussels and Kuwait City are increasingly in agreement on a number of foreign policy dossiers as well as on the need to prioritize diplomacy and mediation across the MENA region. The EU’s 2019 decision to open a permanent mission in the GCC state made this clear. As such, stronger French-Kuwaiti ties could prove key to Macron’s efforts to take the leadership of the EU’s foreign policy in the region. This is well understood within France, as evidenced by the country’s decision to open the French Institute for Kuwait, an institution where France’s MENA experts are increasingly specializing on Kuwait.
The bilateral Paris-Kuwait City relationship has benefitted from positive developments in defense and security cooperation. The November 2018 joint military drills, in which the French armed forces began training the combat readiness of Kuwait’s military, represented a landmark event in advancing such defense cooperation.
More recently, the publication of images of Prophet Mohammad in France by the satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has worsened France’s image in Kuwait. Kuwait’s government has expressed “extreme dismay” over the publication of the Prophet’s images, reflecting the frustration of the country’s public opinion on the issue. Such frustration is tied to widespread online calls to boycott France due to its Islamophobia and resulted in some fifty cooperative societies in Kuwait removing French products from their outlets.
Overall, France’s involvement in Gulf and Iraqi affairs is growing. The region offers France increasing economic opportunities as the GCC states continue to implement their economic diversification strategies. Meanwhile, Macron’s readiness to increase defense cooperation with GCC members and Iraq in such a volatile region does much to explain those states’ willingness to strengthen their ties to Paris. Regarding France’s escalating rivalry with Turkey, the latest controversy over Macron’s speech about Islam allows Abu Dhabi and, to a lesser extent, Riyadh to strengthen a geopolitical front against Ankara while also creating some difficulties for the GCC’s Turkey-friendly member states, chiefly Qatar.
Gorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.
Antonino Occhiuto, based in Rome, completed his postgraduate studies in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he obtained a Master of Science (MSc) in International Politics, a course specifically focused on the Middle East and security and defence affairs. His main areas of research and specialisation are the relations between EU and GCC member states, internal political dynamics in the GCCs, Yemen and security in the Gulf. He contributes periodically with magazines and newspapers both in English and Italian and to the Italian Review of Geopolitics “Limes”. Antonino has already presented at high level forums including the EMSI conference in Nicosia (2018), IEMed’s EuroMeSCo conference in Barcelona (2019) and DGAP-organised forums in Berlin and Amman (2019). Antonino currently works as Analyst and Researcher at Gulf State Analytics (GSA).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.