Europe to operate Gulf maritime security mission out of French base in Abu Dhabi

Looking ahead, Paris appears to be forecasting a growing need for a European role to safeguard European interests rather than simply taking the American lead.
Sunday 01/12/2019
New momentum. Members of the French Armed Forces march past the French frigate Courbet while taking part in a military cermony at the French Naval Base in Abu Dhabi, November 24.(Reuters)
New momentum. Members of the French Armed Forces march past the French frigate Courbet while taking part in a military cermony at the French Naval Base in Abu Dhabi, November 24.(Reuters)

DUBAI - French Defence Minister Florence Parly has announced that a French naval base in Abu Dhabi, opened in 2009 and known as “Peace Camp,” will serve as the headquarters for a new European-led maritime security mission for the Gulf.

The headquarters, aiming for launch early next year, will begin operations with a staff of 15 who “contribute to making maritime navigation in the Gulf as safe as possible.” Paris anticipates that around ten European partners will join the initiative over the coming year.

The move comes as a number of European nations with interests in the Gulf have been reluctant to join a US-led naval mission there owing to rising risks of conflict with Iran.

The announcement from Parly adds momentum to France’s efforts to see a greater European role in the highly strategic Gulf area. The European-led naval mission envisaged by France will coordinate closely with the US-led naval mission but essentially be independent of it.

There is little information currently available on which European nations could extend unit deployments to the European-led mission of which France has become a leading proponent over the past year. The EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Operation Atalanta, a counter-piracy military operation off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean launched in 2008, was the first EU-led naval operation.

Focused on preventing and combating acts of piracy, EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta saw unit deployments from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Spain. The mission in the Gulf is unlikely to involve a formal role for Brussels but reports suggest that the Netherlands is finalising its participation whereas Denmark, Italy, Spain and the UK have all supported the need for such an initiative in the past year.

The position of Germany, often watched closely owing to its importance in setting Europe’s strategic direction, has been less clear, given lingering policy differences among its ruling coalition. The Christian Democratic Union of Angela Merkel has favoured a German role in a European-led naval mission for the Gulf but its junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, has been reluctant because “there is a threat of new wars” the left-of-centre party wants to steer clear of.

In August, the United Kingdom had been at the forefront of efforts to rally support for a European-led naval mission in the Gulf after Iranian forces seized the British-flagged Stena Impero. The British proposal could not materialise fast enough but the UK has been a key member of the US-led naval coalition based out of Bahrain together with Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

American officials say Qatar and Kuwait will join the naval mission shortly and talks are also under way with Canada to secure its participation. Last month, the US military brought together partners from 50 countries for the three week-long International Maritime Exercise in the Gulf, the second-largest maritime exercise of its kind. It included 40 vessels, 17 aircraft and more than 5,000 personnel.

Iran had earlier slammed the United Kingdom’s efforts for building a European-led naval mission in the Gulf as “provocative” but the context of those tensions was different.

Tehran has previously suggested it would also view a European-led naval mission in the Gulf as carrying a “hostile message” but France wants Europe to assume a larger regional role in the context of what it considers US “disengagement” from the region.

France recently dispatched radars to Saudi Arabia to help protect its oil facilities, which were attacked  with cruise missiles and advanced drones in September in an operation linked by Western intelligence agencies to Iran. Tehran denied involvement in the attacks on Saudi Aramco, as well as explosions on oil tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz in May and June but admits shooting down a US surveillance drone in the Gulf and seizing the UK-flagged Stena Impero.

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue, Parly raised questions around American deterrence in the region in view of its “deliberate” and “gradual” regional disengagement, which is characterised by a growing series of instances where challenges are not responded to.

In late November, French President Emmanuel Macron criticised NATO for being “brain-dead,” comments that ironically highlighted differences with Germany, which said it continues to regard the transatlantic alliance as a cornerstone for its security. Amid debate around the future direction of NATO and rebalancing burden-sharing between its members, the United States has looked to build coalitions and develop partner capacities with security cooperation programmes in recent years — an approach highly prevalent in the Middle East.

After US President Donald Trump withdrew from the landmark 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Europe’s three signatories to the accord — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — have struggled to keep it alive. Europe’s political leaderships have recorded objections with the United States over its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and where it could lead.

France, in particular, has made sustained efforts to rescue the JCPOA and reduce US-Iran tensions with a goal of restarting talks but has so far been unable to secure a major breakthrough with either file.

Looking ahead, Paris appears to be forecasting a growing need for a European role to safeguard European interests rather than simply taking the American lead. To what extent France can push its vision through remains to be seen in the months ahead but the process has officially commenced.

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