Opening of a French military base in Abu Dhabi

Press review- week  from May 25 to 29, 2009

On May 26th, Nicolas Sarkozy opened a military base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Taking into account the old Franco-Emirati cooperation in the field of defense, this step is not surprising. However, the permanent French settlement in the Gulf is something innovative and responds to the growing importance of the region in the international balance.

A new agreement, part of a broad cooperation

The French military base opened in Abu Dhabi, called “French military establishment in the United Arab Emirates”, will be the most important support for ships of the French navy in the region, reports AFP. The naval base is part of an agreement that also allows air posting on the air base of Al-Dhafra and grouping Land forces in Zayed Military City. This initiative was created under the defense agreement between France and the Emirates in 1995. The agreement of 2008 intends that France finances the cost of equipment and functioning while the Emirates manage the infrastructure.
France has been developing its relationship with the Emirates since the 1970s. As early as 1991, said Le Figaro, a secret agreement guaranteeing a French intervention in case of aggression on the Emirati soil had been signed between the two countries. Thereafter, the sale of defense equipment from France in the Emirates has been continuous and according to the French government, 50% of the military equipment in the Emirates is French.
It is a military agreement, but the economic dimension is to be taken into account: the UAE are the fourth trade surplus of France and the first customer of the French aerospace and defense industry, said Le Figaro.
This partnership in aeronautics and armaments could go further since Paris seems interested in building the first nuclear power plant in the Emirates. The UAE are aiming at building a dozen of power plants to meet their large consumption of water and electricity. On this project, France is in competition with the United States.

Furthermore, the opening of part of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi extends this cooperation to the cultural sphere.

For France, getting closer to the « hot spots » and for the Gulf, protecting itself from the Iranian threat

The new military base will constitute a call to Afghanistan and it will give France an easier access to Pakistan and Iraq. Above all, it brings Paris closer to Tehran. Indeed, Iranian costs are 225 kilometers away from Abu Dhabi, reminds Le Figaro. By moving closer to the Iranian coast, Paris seems to hope to acquire a « deterrent position » towards Tehran. The French assessment of this new position was summarized by a diplomat: « if Iran attacked the Emirates, it would also attack the French”, showing the new French involvement in the Iranian matter. N. Sarkozy therefore reiterated his opposition to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet. Moreover, said Le Monde, one of the base’s activities could be related to mine clearance operations in the Gulf if Iran sought to impede the traffic near the Strait of Hormuz, as it has already brandished the threat. Tehran had already expressed in 2008 its opposition to the project arguing that: « Iran opposes any military expansion in the region and believes that the presence of foreign troops is a factor of insecurity and instability « according to Le Monde, even though, officially, the French military presence in Abu Dhabi “is not aiming at anyone », says Le Figaro. For theTimes, Paris is sending clear signals to Tehran by setting up near its coasts.

This military base does not simply comes from a French willingness to settle further east: the Emirates are the ones who have applied to host the base, fearing the development of Iran possessing nuclear weapons. « Better two that one ally » justified the Emirates in Le Figaro, in a period when the Americans do not hide their desire to reshape their strategic choices in the world. The National, an English-speaking newspaper in Abu Dhabi, said that although at first sight, the French military base seems to be a step in the Emirates’ plan to diversify its protection; France is not a protector but a partner.

A new French defense strategy

For France, this is a new chapter. As Le Figaro highlights, this is the first time since the independence of former French colonies in Africa, that France opens a permanent military base outside its national territory. But it is also the first time it is implanted in an area under Anglo-Saxon influence, the UAE being a former British colony. For many analysts, this represents a great change in the strategic position of France, following last year’s report and recommendation on defense.

The Come-back of France in NATO

President Sarkozy told Le Figaro that the opening of this military base was « a sign that France can adapt to new challenges, it is ready to assume its responsibilities and to play its role in world affairs. » This « responsibility » that France wants to recover is to link to its return into NATO integrated army command. Thanks to this base, France is joining the United States and Great Britain among the powers in the Gulf in a “collective effort” for defense.
However, besides the desire to join the Western powers in a common defense effort, the French administration recognizes that a French military intervention in a national framework (and not multinational) would be justifiable in a case of implementation of defense bilateral agreements that bind France to certain States, Le Monde analysis.

The Gulf as a priority

« In 2009, priority to the Gulf » Nicolas Sarkozy had announced a few months ago according toLe Figaro. French interests seem to be moving eastward, along an “arc of crisis” stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Africa is not the priority in terms of military projection for France anymore. This implementation is derived from the analysis of the Defense report approved in 2008 by the French presidency, which identifies, among « priority areas » for the presence of national armed forces, « especially the strategic Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. »
The National, the UAE English-speaking newspaper, said that France has always remained outside the Gulf area despite the economic growth of the region. Today, the country is developing its relations with Qatar and Iraq from whom France had distanced after 2003. Nevertheless, the recent bridge-building of Paris with Damascus annoyed Saudi Arabia. For the daily, Mr Sarkozy’s policy in the Arab world contrasts with the choices of previous Presidencies. Finally, The National stresses the specificity of France’s image in the Gulf since it does not have any « colonial baggage » in the region. France would be the perfect partner for the UAE as a nuclear power, a military, industrial and technological force, with a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations.

The roads of oil

Finally, the base is located in an area where 40% of oil worldwide transit. Besides, the Turkish daily Hurriyet stresses that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that this base was a milestone in international cooperation against piracy. Hurriyet confirmed this desire by suggesting that anti-pirate patrols may be launched from that base to go off to Somali coasts to secure oil transportation.

Such a military establishment marks a new chapter of the French-Emirati partnership and a step for the European presence in the Arab world.