France’s deepening relations with the Gulf

France has growing strategic relevance in the Gulf region, but its new proximity is dependent on increasingly unconditional support for Gulf regional policies

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
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The recent visit to Paris of Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the signing of an estimated $12 billion worth of economic and military deals has once again highlighted France's deepening relations with the Gulf States. In May President Hollande became the first ever Western leader to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders summit, and over the last six months alone France has inked a $3 billion deal with Riyadh to supply weapons to the Lebanese army, a $7 billion dollar deal to sell Rafale jets to Qatar and a $5 billion deal to sell the same planes to Egypt, facilitated by strong political and possible financial support from the UAE. 

This developing closeness has been embraced as a sign of France's growing strategic relevance in the region, with Paris said to be filling the void created by deepening Gulf frustration with US regional policies, particularly fears of a perceived soft line on Iran. But reality points the other way: France's new proximity is dependent on increasingly unconditional support for Gulf regional policies, weakening its ability to wield independent influence, including by making the case for Gulf policies of de-escalation which, at times, it privately recognises as necessary.

As the latest example, France, more than any other Western state is now offering full backing to the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, as others – notably the US – increasingly show their wariness of the security, political and humanitarian downsides of the ongoing intervention press the Saudi government on the need for an exit strategy.

Paris is today being used by the Gulf states to secure desired western political cover for their regional positions – including by sending a message to Washington that the Gulf can turn elsewhere for support. Clearly French military hardware is useful to the Gulf States, helping them diversify their security portfolios at a time of unprecedented regional upheaval. Rafale jets will be valuable additions to Gulf States that are now actively undertaking combat operations across the region, whether in Yemen, Libya or as part of the anti-ISIS coalition. But ultimately, and despite current frustrations, the Gulf States continue to look to the US for their security umbrella and to provide key military support, and it is the political dynamic that is driving deepening engagement with Paris.

France is of course gaining notable commercial reward for this support. Hollande has placed France at the front of the pack – often to the envy of other Europeans such as the UK – in terms of reaping the material gains of Gulf unease, their desire for some Western backing and their willingness to spend to unprecedented levels. Whether by offering full support for the Yemen intervention or taking a more hard line position on the terms being offered to Iran as part of the nuclear negotiations, Paris has succeeded in presenting itself as the Gulf's closest Western ally, and has been rewarded accordingly.

In some cases such as on Iran, and on Syria, where Paris has lined up alongside the Gulf in calling for more assertive action to remove Bashar al-Assad, this has not necessarily involved a significant departure from France's own analytical reading of the situation (though there appear to be some concerns in Paris about the willingness of Gulf States to work with the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group in Syria).

In other areas, such as the decision to sell fighter jets to the Egyptian government, taking the lead on European re-legitimisation of the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or the call to back the Saudi intervention in Yemen, this alignment does not necessarily hold so true, with some ongoing French concerns over the possible or likely consequences for regional stability and, by extension, for European and French interests.

Either way, France has been able to take these positions without incurring any significant burden of responsibility, whether by initiating unilateral military steps to back its strong rhetoric or by suggesting any real willingness to ultimately block the US brokered nuclear deal. Much like the Gulf States France continues to look to the US to make the decisive calls in the region, even as it takes direct advantage of American unwillingness to act as it wants. Ironically, if Washington was to respond more assertively, in line with proclaimed Gulf and French ambitions, Paris would be likely to quickly lose its newly secured privileged position with the Gulf States.

French-GCC ties are clearly mutually beneficial in many ways, but at the end of the day are unlikely to be able to deliver a meaningful strategic partnership. France may be gaining new commercial reward but its role as an actor with meaningful regional influence is arguably being diminished as it increasingly falls unquestioningly in line with Gulf policies, even where they are playing some role in feeding the conditions fuelling new threats to European interests, whether in terms of terrorism or concerns about the huge increase in refugee inflows.

For their part the Gulf States know that, however helpful and desirable the political cover Paris provides, France will ultimately be unable and unwilling to meaningfully step up in order to help them address their core regional concerns.

A version of this article was originally published on Middle East Eye

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme