Will France succeed in replacing the US as the Gulf’s primary partner?
Macron visits Gulf states
French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up his tour of the Gulf after a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in Jeddah.
The meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday, after Macron’s meeting with the Qatari emir, was to discuss regional stability, in particular crisis-hit Lebanon, after insisting he has not ignored Riyadh’s rights record.
Macron landed in Jeddah after visits to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as part of a short Gulf tour.
Macron becomes one of the first Western leaders to meet with Prince Mohammed in the kingdom since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The killing by Saudi agents severely tarnished Prince Mohammed’s international image and drew widespread condemnation.
But Macron said dialogue with Saudi Arabia was necessary to “work for stability in the region”. However, he added, in a reference to the Khashoggi murder, that “it doesn’t mean that I endorse anything”.
“I note that Saudi Arabia had organised the G20 summit… not many powers boycotted the G20” despite the Khashoggi affair, said Macron.
“We have always been clear on the issue of human rights or this case.”
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.
A senior French presidency official who spoke to reporters ahead of the trip on customary condition of anonymity said Macron will “continue to push and support the efforts that contribute to the stability of the region, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.”
Gulf tensions will be discussed, the official said, in particular the revived talks about Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, following then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.
“This is a hot topic,” the French official said, adding that Macron discussed the issues in a phone call Monday with Iran’s president. He will talk about the call and the issues — including the nuclear deal talks in Vienna — with Gulf leaders, who are “directly concerned by this subject, like all of us but also because they are (Iran’s) neighbors,” the official said.
France, along with Germany and the United Kingdom, thinks the 2015 nuclear agreement — with minor tweaks — is the way forward with Iran, analysts say. The UAE and Saudi Arabia bitterly opposed the West’s negotiated deal with Iran, though now both have launched talks with Tehran to cool tensions.
“Although the Gulf countries did not like the West’s deal with Iran, the prospect of it falling apart acrimoniously is also bad for them and arguably presents worse risks,” said Jane Kinninmont, a London-based Gulf expert with the European Leadership Network think tank.
France recognizes the UAE’s importance
The United Arab Emirates ordered 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters on Friday, deepening economic and political ties with France through an arms contract worth 17 billion euros ($19.20 billion).
“These contracts are important for the economy and create jobs in France. What is good for French men and women, I defend ardently,” Macron told reporters, dismissing concerns by activists that French arms sales in the Gulf were fuelling conflicts in the region.
The French presidency said the deal, signed at a ceremony between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) and Macron on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo 2020, is worth $19 billion.
The first French warplanes will be delivered from 2027, officials, and would create some 7,000 jobs.
The largest ever overseas sale of the French warplane was sealed as French President Emmanuel Macron began a two-day trip to the Gulf, during which he will also visit Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
France has particularly deep ties to the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. France has a naval base there and French warplanes and personnel also are stationed in a major facility outside the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi.
Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Macron said they are important contracts for the deepening defense cooperation between France and the UAE that will contribute to the stability of the region and enhance a common fight against terrorism.
In addition, “it’s important for our economy because the planes are manufactured in France,” he said.
Macron and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de factor ruler, were present at the Rafale contract signing.
Manufacturer Dassault Aviation said the UAE is buying the upgraded F4 version of its multirole Rafale combat aircraft. That will make the Emirates Air Force the first Rafale F4 user outside of France, it said.
Dassault Aviation boss Eric Trappier called the sale “a French success story” and “excellent news for France and for its aeronautical industry.”
The purchase marks a sizable step up for the UAE’s military capabilities in the oil- and gas-rich region. Charles Forrester, a senior analyst at Janes, said the fighter “will significantly upgrade UAE’s airpower capabilities in terms of strike, air-to-air warfare, and reconnaissance.” Abu Dhabi also hopes to buy American stealth F-35 fighters after diplomatically recognizing Israel last year.
Macron’s visit comes at a time when Gulf Arab states have voiced uncertainty about the United States’ focus on the region even as they seek more weapons from their key security ally.
The French leader has forged a good relationship with MBZ with investments flowing between the two countries. Paris has a permanent military base in the Emirati capital.
The UAE’s increasing geopolitical importance in the Gulf, emerging as the most proactive and strategically significant state in the Gulf, has made it France’s target for cooperation and part of its plans to place a stronger foothold in the Middle East, possibly replacing the US as the UAE’s primary backer and partner in the medium to long term.
Will France replace the US?
The US’s foreign policy shift with regards to the Gulf states and a general policy of withdrawal from military engagement in the Middle East has presented countries like France the opportunity to identify and possibly fill a power vacuum that has been created by this shift. However, France is not the only power actively seeking to fill in this void. Russia and China have also shown interest in developing a military, economic and geopolitical presence in the Gulf. For most of this century it was possible for Gulf countries to think of China as an economic partner and the U.S. as a political and security partner, and pursuing deeper commercial ties with China wasn’t especially problematic. But now this is changing as well as China looks towards building geopolitical influence in its neighboring and surrounding countries.
The Arabian Peninsula is key real estate for what China wants to achieve in the MENA region. On the Persian Gulf side there is the energy component, with much of China’s imported oil and LNG coming from Gulf countries, and there’s also substantial trade, investment, and contracting for Chinese companies. Looking at the top sources of contracting revenue for Chinese companies in MENA, it’s not surprising that since 2005 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Iraq have been major sources of contracts for Chinese construction and infrastructure. So economically the Gulf countries are important partners for more than just energy.
At the same time, their ports and free zones along the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula fit neatly with China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative ambitions, and there have been a lot of projects to align Gulf countries’ industrial park and port development with the MSRI. This links business clusters and supply chains from the Gulf to the Arabian, Red, and Mediterranean Seas, helping China reach European markets without costly naval bases. Projects that are first and foremost about economic outcomes are therefore helping serve larger strategic ambitions. China has much deeper capabilities in the form of economic might, hard and soft power, to gain an important role in the Middle East than France. However, China will face bigger obstacles posed by the US, who is still an important player in the Gulf, than France, as was seen by the recent decision by the UAE to abandon the reported construction of a Chinese base on its soil, after US pressure. However, such moves will only block China’s ambitions in the short term.
Russia hopes to blow new life into a proposal for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, with the tacit approval of the Biden administration.
Last week, he invited former officials, scholars, and journalists from feuding Middle Eastern nations to a closed-door meeting in Moscow to discuss the region’s multiple disputes and conflicts and ways of preventing them from spinning out of control.
Mr. Naumkin, who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, co-authored the plan first put forward in 2004. The Russian foreign ministry published a fine-tuned version in 2019.
Russia appears to have timed the revival of its proposal to begin creating a framework to deal with Houthi rebels, seemingly gaining the upper hand against Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s seven-year-long devastating war.
Russia has also in recent years developed strong ties with the UAE, especially on the economic front, but also in its support for Haftar in Libya along with the UAE.
The US is not yet completely withdrawing its monumental anchor in the Gulf which it has build over the course of this past century, but we can see its stability and importance gradually eroding. The Gulf states no longer see the US as the only geopolitical and military guarantee for their development in the international scene. France is certainly working towards being one of the players that replace the US as a strong backer of the Gulf, but it must be said, that no single power will exercise the geopolitical dominance in relations that the US had with the Gulf. What we will rather see is a combination of powers, including France, developing strong ties with the Gulf, in order to propel themselves into a position of power worldwide.