France benefits from comparative edge in the Gulf region
London - France has been making waves in the Middle East, attracting praise from Sunni Arab leaders for its strong stances on a number of foreign policy issues, stances that often appear at odds with those of the United States.
France’s reputation for independence appears to be paying dividends: in May French President François Hollande became the first Western president to be a “guest of honour” at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), prompting speculation that France could be staking a claim as a reliable alternative to the United States in a region whose monarchs are increasingly rattled by US policy towards Iran.
Although French policy in the region is perceived as being different from that of the United States, serious questions remain as to whether this perception is based on genuine disagreement or astute public relations.
Hollande’s treatment at the GCC summit in Riyadh stands out all the more starkly in light of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s absence from the Camp David talks in the United States, which convened the following week. The talks were called largely to alleviate Saudi fears of an imminent deal over Iran’s nuclear programme and Salman’s failure to attend was interpreted as a snub to the Obama administration.
As US officials were announcing the Camp David talks, Hollande was concluding a deal to supply Qatar with 24 Rafael fighter jets, said to be worth an estimated $7 billion. The deal was the latest in a series of lucrative contracts to be concluded by France. Beaming at the cameras, Hollande emphasised that France “is seen as a reliable country, one that partner countries can trust”.
In the context of Gulf unease at US eagerness to conclude a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, the implication that America is an unreliable partner was lost on nobody.
France has undoubtedly been rewarded for its tough stance on Iran and Syria with Gulf largesse but analysts remain at odds over just how distinct French policy is.
“If France has reservations, it is about the behaviour and body language of the Obama administration, not about the US policy in general,” claims Bruno Tertrais, senior fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think-tank, “This administration is widely perceived in Paris as being often hesitant and sometimes ineffective, as being somewhat delusional about what a deal with Iran could bring in terms of regional benefits, and thus too eager for such a deal.”
France nonetheless remains, like the United States, committed to signing a nuclear agreement with Tehran. French reservations about the feasibility of a deal have been largely addressed by the technical rigour of the conditions of the agreement, says Michel Makinsky, a research associate at Institut Prospective & Sécurité en Europe, a Paris think-tank. “The technical negotiations are absolutely extremely well checked, double checked and triple checked. Therefore, if there is an agreement one should be confident in the technical robustness of this.”
Ernest Moniz, the US secretary of energy and a nuclear physicist, is taking part in the technical aspect of the negotiations and is said to have laid the basis for a rigorous regime.
Despite France’s presence in the Gulf and its verbal commitments to supporting the defence of its Gulf allies, many analysts remain sceptical of French willingness or even capacity to ensure the security of GCC states, instead seeing hawkish rhetoric in the context of French commercial policy.
“The hawkish positions I think hide a much different reality, one in which positions are closer with the US. The true reason of this strategic approach is to capitalise on economic potential and the potential of trade and arms deals with the Gulf states,” says Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa at the political consultancy Eurasia Group.
“I think behind closed doors a lot of French businesses are looking forward to the removal of sanctions and entry into the Iranian market.”
While remaining crucial strategic partners to the United States, France and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are both benefactors from high-profile public relations. France makes clear its role as a serious regional player while the Gulf states signal to the United States their displeasure with US policy and the availability of other options for building international alliances a situation described as “win-win” by Kamel.
The realities of world power, however, mean that France is constrained to operate multilaterally with the United States and Britain in Middle Eastern affairs. Within the overall constraints of US regional policy, France has been assiduous in trying to harden the negotiating stance of the United States in Iranian nuclear negotiations and towards Syrian President Bashar Assad while ultimately recognising that, in the Middle East, it does not have the power to go it alone.
These efforts have not gone unappreciated in a region where many feel the United States is getting its foreign policy horrendously wrong.