In the Gulf, ‘François of Arabia’ to the rescue
London - Le Monde dubbed French President François Hollande “François of Arabia” as he became the first Western leader to address a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, where he heard Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud bemoan Iran’s efforts to “expand control” and foment “sectarian sedition”.
On May 4th in Doha, Hollande trumpeted a $7.1 billion deal with Qatar for French-built Rafale jets and described France as “a reliable country, one in which a partner country can have confidence” — a none-too-subtle reference to the United States’ retreat from the region and its negotiations with Iran, the Gulf monarchies’ bête noire.
As well as supplying the Qataris, Paris is negotiating with the United Arab Emirates over the possible sale of 60 Rafales, a deal worth up to $11 billion. French officials boast they are on the cusp of economic deals with Riyadh “worth billions of euros”.
France has also dragged its feet in world powers’ nuclear talks with Tehran over its nuclear programme. Paris stressed in a joint statement with Saudi Arabia in early May that any agreement should be “verifiable” and not “threaten the security and stability of Iran’s neighbours” — just what the Gulf powers wanted to hear.
While in Riyadh for the GCC summit, Hollande also met Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s mainly Sunni Future Movement, to discuss supplying the Lebanese Army with French military aid worth $3 billion, financed by Riyadh.
This is not the first time France has entered a political space left by Washington or that Paris has shown wariness of Tehran.
“In the 70s and 80s, France established a military and commercial presence in the Gulf,” Olivier Da Lage, author of The Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia and analyst at Radio France International, told The Arab Weekly. “France always considered itself an important player in the Middle East.”
In 2003-05, France joined Britain and Germany in negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programme. But the Europeans’ goal, strongly supported by the Bush administration, remained that Tehran give up uranium enrichment.
When Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008, pledging to engage Tehran and looked at compromises under which Iran would continue some enrichment, French officials briefed journalists on Paris’s fears this would concede too much.
More recently, France has asserted an independent approach to Syria. In October 2014, Paris backed a Turkish proposal for a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which foundered because of US opposition.
In March, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticised the suggestion from US Secretary of State John Kerry that talks might be needed with Syrian President Bashar Assad to end the four-year war in Syria.
Da Lage says that Hollande, elected in 2012, and Fabius share a personal distrust of Tehran. “They were both in power in the early 1980s when there was the bombing in Beirut [carried out by Islamic Jihad, a group linked to Iran] against the Drakkar [headquarters of French peacekeepers], when the French lost many soldiers,” he said.
“There was also a string of bombings in Paris [some attributed to Iranian-allied groups], a hostage crisis [at least nine French citizens were kidnapped in Beirut] and so on. Both Hollande and Fabius have in mind that period and the concept of Iran as very suspicious.”
But that is all a far cry from the narrative, currently popular in the GCC, that France is set to replace a US withdrawing from the region.
“I don’t see the US (Navy) 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, leaving to go somewhere else,” François Nicoullaud, former ambassador to Tehran, told France 24 television. “Even beyond the question of oil; this is a strategic region and the US is there to stay.”
Da Lage says Paris is exploiting a desire by GCC states to influence Washington. “When they’re unhappy with the US, they want to show there’s an alternative,” he said. “France is using that opportunity — quite skilfully — but it wasn’t really pushing for it.
“This is mostly an initiative of the Gulf states. Sooner or later, the situation will come back to the medium position, where France takes a back seat.”
Hollande, a socialist with low poll ratings and facing an election in 2017, is under domestic pressure over relations with the Gulf monarchies.
Four months after Islamist gunmen killed 12 people in France, there is a debate over how close Paris should be to countries with links to militant Sunni groups.
“I’m not privy to any secret information on this,” Da Lage observed, “but I feel the reason the French — as well as the US — are backing the [GCC] intervention in Yemen, which is doomed to fail, is that they want to show they support the security of those Sunni monarchies and therefore keep them on board against the Islamic State (ISIS).”