Francophon-ing the Gulf

Ahmed Mostafa , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

The French president returned from his Gulf tour with business as well as political gains, writes Ahmed Mostafa

Francophon-ing  the Gulf
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Macron (Photo: AP)

During his Gulf tour French President Emmanuel Macron managed to convince Saudi Arabia, and consequently other Gulf countries, to mend fences with France’s former colony, Lebanon. With the United Arab Emirates in addition to Saudi Arabia, he also signed contracts and memoranda of understanding worth billions.

Macron (L) is greeted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan during his tour of the French pavillion at the Dubai Expo on the (Photo : AFP)

The main political achievement was a phone call joining him and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Jeddah with the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut, which paved the way to ending the Gulf boycott of Lebanon after the Lebanese information minister George Kordahi, criticised the Saudi-led Coalition’s war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Just before Macron’s visit to the Gulf, Kordahi resigned, noting in a press conference that it was his understanding that “the French wanted this”. There had been media reports of Saudi Arabia rejecting a French proposal to have Miqati visit Jeddah for a trilateral meeting with Macron and Bin Salman, though the Financial Times reported that the Saudis had agreed to send their ambassador back to Beirut even if “it was not clear they would do so”.

With an impending election in which Macron faces serious challenges from political opponents, the French president needed to present himself as a statesman able to bring back French influence and promote French business. In addition to easing tensions between the Gulf and Lebanon, his visit to Qatar generated more headlines as he announced that France and a number of European nations were considering opening a joint diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. Macron stressed that this move would not mean recognition of the country’s Taliban ruler.

Macron’s Gulf tour, on which he was accompanied by a business delegation, started with UAE, followed by Qatar, and ended with Saudi Arabia. In Dubai he announced a $19 billion deal to sell Rafale fighter jets and helicopters to UAE. In Jeddah, the state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries announced joint ventures with French companies Airbus and Figeac Aéro.

As one Emirati pundit put it, military relations with France go back decades, France having been a partner in developing Emirati military industries. The sale of the 80 upgraded Rafale fighters comes as no surprise. But this is the biggest ever arms deal France has made under Macron.

Commentators, both in the region and in the West, argue that the Gulf countries are seeking new alliances due to American disengagement with the region. But a Gulf academic and political commentator told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US remains a principal ally of the Gulf countries. He refuted the notion that the Gulf is “substituting its alliance with the United States or the United Kingdom for an alliance with France”, stressing that “America remains an important ally, but Gulf countries are expanding their foreign policies horizons and seeking to diversify regional and international relations”.

The prevalence of English as opposed to French in the Gulf lends credence to this line of thought, though Macron also took the opportunity to extend the partnership agreement between the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the parent museum for another 10 years. In Saudi Arabia, he signed a cultural MoU to further cooperation between the two countries, with a five-year agreement covering architecture, audiovisual production, design, film, heritage, literature and performing arts and visual arts. In addition, the MoU will facilitate the two countries to explore cultural regulations and policies. There will also be opportunities to increase the participation of Saudi and French artists in residency exchange programmes and bolster cooperation between artists and cultural institutions in both countries.

As for military cooperation, France is the third biggest global arms exporter and considers Saudi Arabia a main client for its military production. French defence firms including Dassault and Thales have major contracts in the kingdom. In recent years, Riyadh bought French tanks, armoured vehicles, naval vessels and munition. In 2016, licences worth over $22 billion were approved by the French authorities.

Apart from bilateral relations, the Gulf-French connection has developed steadily in the last two decades. Both parties hold strong positions against militants and share in the fight against terrorism in the region and beyond. The UAE and Saudi Arabia support France’s ongoing military campaign against terrorism in Mali and the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. This partnership extends all the way back to when Gulf-US relations were in their heyday.

Since early last decade, Gulf countries started a new approach to galvanise relations with different allies, rather than relying solely on the United States. That included forging ties with China and Russia, among others. Whether that was the result of American disengagement with the region or the keenness of Gulf countries to diversify their foreign alliances, the outcome would have been helpful to an aspiring world power like France. But as the aforementioned Gulf academic notes, this is not a Francophone-ing of the Gulf that would replace the region’s Anglophone orientation. It is rather an expression of interest-based foreign policy attitudes reflecting the emergence of the Gulf as an increasingly self-reliant bloc.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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