On the 3rd and 4th of December, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, toured the Gulf, visiting the UAE, Qatar, then Saudi Arabia. With the tour's substantial commercial success for France, the strategic and political dimensions were clearly present; Macron seeks to establish France as an important player in global affairs and a key leader in the European Union. Macron has long advocated so-called "European strategic independence," a call that is gaining renewed relevance as Paris prepares to take over rotating leadership of the European Union next spring. He also wants his leadership of the EU to serve as an electoral advantage in his presidential campaign in May 2022.
Despite Macron's diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis between Lebanon and Gulf states, especially following the resignation of the Lebanese Information Minister, George Kordahi, a regional official was quoted in the Financial Times saying, “With upcoming French elections, it’s important for him to make progress on this file.”
France is trying to strengthen its role in the Middle East, in light of the shift in American priorities and roles of the in the Middle East, as well as the growing role Moscow and Beijing are playing in the region.
During Macron's visit, France and Saudi Arabia agreed that Lebanon must undertake comprehensive reforms in the financial and energy sectors, in addition to fighting corruption and strengthening border security. In a joint statement, Riyadh and Paris also agreed to establish a common humanitarian mechanism to alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese people.
At Macron's second stop, Qatar, the French president thanked the state for its assistance in arranging the evacuation of 258 Afghans through Doha to France, as they were under threat in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country because of their links to Paris.
Macron said that several European countries are working to establish a joint diplomatic mission in Afghanistan that will allow their ambassadors to return to the country. He also told reporters in Doha that this step will be taken as soon as possible, but that they will not recognize the Taliban movement, which has seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021.
Deals that demonstrate trust in the French partner
With President Macron's visit to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Paris has established itself as a key strategic player for its Gulf allies, and in light of some ambiguities in the Gulf-US relationship regarding some defense deals, Paris appeared as a reliable defense partner, as well as a “balancing factor.” However, this should not be exaggerated, as the American partner remains indispensable to the Gulf states.
Additionally, during this tour, Paris was able to conclude numerous agreements and deals signaling the expansion of a comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular. The agreements and deals covered military, commercial, and other fields, including:
- Following Macron's meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the French government announced that the UAE will purchase 80 Rafale combat aircraft produced by Dassault Aviation and 12 Caracal military helicopters from Airbus. The two contracts are worth more than 17 billion euros (about 19 billion dollars). Furthermore, the UAE bought equipment and helicopters worth 3 billion dollars as part of additional contracts. The deal, to be delivered between 2027 and 2031, aims to replace 60 Mirage 2000-9 fighters in service since 1998. Dassault Aviation said that the UAE is purchasing the upgraded version of the Rafale F4 multirole combat fighter, for which the Emirates Air Force will be the first user outside France.
- According to UAE sovereign fund “Mubadala”, Emirati and French companies signed comprehensive economic agreements worth more than 15 billion euros between Emirati and French companies, aimed at enhancing strategic investments between the two countries.
- In a statement, Airbus announced an agreement with the Saudi Helicopters Company to expand its fleet with the purchase of 26 aircraft from Airbus Helicopters, including twenty H145 and six H160 aircraft.
- Veolia, the world leader in water and waste management, announced that it was awarded a contract from the Saudi National Water Company for water and wastewater services in the capital Riyadh and 22 outlying municipalities. The 7-year contract represents revenues of 82.6 million euros. In addition, Veolia signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Ministry of Investment and Water Transmission and Technologies Company in the water sector to improve “the operational, energy and commercial performance of the water sector throughout the country”. Moreover, the company is expanding its ties with the Saudi oil giant Aramco, as the French group has become Aramco's “exclusive partner” for treating its industrial and ordinary waste, which amounts to 200,000 tons annually in addition to the 120,000 tons of hazardous waste originally managed by Veolia.
- The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) announced the signing of five agreements with leading French companies, including an agreement to explore a hydrogen-powered vehicle business with Gaussin.
Indications and motives
As we examine the motives of the French president for this Gulf tour, and its impact on the regional scene, we can note the following:
1. The purchase of a large fleet of upgraded Rafale fighters represents a major boost for the UAE's military capabilities in the oil and gas rich Gulf region. Charles Forrester, a senior analyst at Janes, said the French fighter “will significantly upgrade UAE’s airpower capabilities in terms of strike, air-to-air warfare, and reconnaissance,” as reported by Associated Press.
2. France has a realistic policy towards Riyadh, as an influential regional capital, an approach that reinforces “balanced” character on the part of an international power. An advisor to the French president explains that his country presents itself as a “balancing force by improving dialogue with and between the various actors” in the region, as well as a “key and reliable partner”. Therefore, France has no choice but to strengthen its economic partnership and cooperation with Saudi Arabia in areas of mutual interest, such as Lebanon, energy markets, the Iranian nuclear program, and regional conflicts. “We can’t imagine having an ambitious plan in the region like the president’s—fighting terrorism in the region, lowering tensions in the Gulf, Iraq, Yemen—without having a forceful dialogue with Saudi Arabia,” an aide to Mr. Macron said.
3. Gulf leaders’ uncertainty about U.S. commitments to their security is driving them to strengthen European ties, which Mr. Macron is likely to leverage to boost his image and strike some deals that he can capitalize on in his electoral campaign, risk consulting firm Eurasia Group said in a research note.
4. The Gulf tour may be Macron's chance to put a statement out on the world stage five months before the French presidential election. In this context, Bloomberg quotes Ayham Kamel, the head of Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa research team, saying that Macron is making huge deals in the Gulf because “it shows him as a leader everyone wants to engage with and that he has global influence.”
The UAE between French and American fighter jets
While examining the dimensions of the Rafale deal with the UAE, the French newspaper “Libération quoted Jean-Loup Samaan, the associate research fellow at the French Institute of international relations, saying that “The deal carries a political message to the United States, which has been reluctant to sell the F-35 produced by Lockheed Martin to Abu Dhabi.” The paper notes that “former French president, Francois Hollande had hoped to export the Rafale fighter first, but ultimately failed to do so.” What changed the equation, according to Libération, is "the gradual withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East.”
To reassure the United States, the UAE has explained its position on the purchase of F-35 fighters. The Commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defense, Major General Ibrahim Nasser Al-Alawi, told Emirates News Agency (WAM) that “the signed contract with France is not a substitute for the US F-35 ongoing discussions. It's rather complementary to our Air Force capabilities as we continue to develop our air defense systems and seek new products and advanced technologies as part of our overall National Security Strategy.” He added that the Rafale aircraft will replace the Emirates fleet of French-made Mirage 2000 fighters currently in service.
Summary and conclusions
1. France is trying to strengthen its role in the Middle East, in light of the shift Washington’s priorities and roles of the in the Middle East, as well as the growing role Moscow and Beijing are playing in the region.
2. “Over the course of Mr. Macron's presidency, France has deepened its diplomatic ties with its Arab partners, reflecting not only a growing recognition of the positive role that Paris can play in the Arab world, but also the necessity to pay heed to regional voices in the process,” as The National pointed out, noting that “affairs in the Middle East and the West do not occur in isolation. A host of challenges – from an ongoing migration crisis to the proliferation of armed extremist groups – are shared by both regions, and require joint strategies and common resolve to address.” “Some of these challenges, of course, are not new; they have festered for many years,” The National said. However, “France has distinguished itself in this regard by keeping them front and center in its foreign policy, even when it has been difficult to do so. It has played a leading role in unifying the regional security agenda, carrying out joint exercises with Greece and Egypt in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It has conducted similar exercises with the UAE in the Gulf, aimed at keeping important commercial maritime routes safe and strengthening the region's defenses against terrorist groups like ISIS.”
3. Other shared challenges go beyond the scope of defense partnerships. The list of potential areas of co-operation between France and the Arab world has grown to include economic recovery, environmental stewardship, technological innovation food security, as well as cultural and academic co-operation.
4. Through his diplomatic moves in Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf in the past two years, Macron is signaling that Europe is interested in playing a greater leading role in the affairs of the region. The reality of the situation, however, shows that flash visits cannot resolve the thorny issues of the region and the complexities and problems they contain. In light of the lack of trust between the various parties to the crises, these issues require diligent and multilateral diplomatic actions in order to follow through on accumulated steps that serve as preludes to dismantling some complexes of thorny issues and hotbeds of tension in the region. All of this provides insight into the reality of French influence in the Middle East and its prospects. Even though Macron made a substantial contribution to the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership held in Iraq last August, as this French effort focused on enhancing the role of Iraq in its Arab environment, it was not accompanied by a second and equally urgent and important effort. It involves exerting pressure on the Iranian side so that it does not obstruct other regional projects. This requires a change in Iranian policies, and this is far from being accomplished, despite the movement of the major Gulf capitals toward communicating with the Iranian leadership, as well as an attempt to activate tools of calm and dialogue, and the keenness to stop the escalation on their part.
5. What is certain in this tour is that France has particularly deep ties to the UAE, and that the deals Macron struck on his Gulf visits offer a shot in the arm for France’s defense industry after the collapse of a 66 billion dollar contract for Australia to buy 12 French submarines that ultimately went to the U.S.
6. Moreover, when it comes to French-Gulf relations, Macron’s keen interest in forging personal relationships with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and his counterpart in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, makes him a welcome guest in the region.
7. It is unlikely that France will replace the United States of America, at least in the short and medium term, in providing security protection to the Gulf states, nor will French jets and military equipment be a substitute for American equipment and weapons. In spite of the consistent policy of the Gulf states for decades on diversifying the sources of armaments and strategic partnerships between international players, the United States will continue to have the largest share. Even so, diversification of partnerships enhances "hedging" capabilities in the countries of the region, but it raises the issue of sustained and collective security, which is still elusive so far.
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