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10 Takeaways on France and the Gulf States

1. Historical Overview of Franco-Gulf Relations

France has maintained longstanding relations with the Gulf states, dating back to the 19th century when it sought to expand its influence in the region. However, ties strengthened significantly after the Gulf nations gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Key milestones include:

  • 1995: France signed a defense agreement with the UAE, allowing for military intervention if the UAE is threatened.
  • 2009: France established its first permanent military base in the Gulf region, the French Naval Base in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
  • 2007: France announced a strategic partnership with the UAE.

France has traditionally viewed the Gulf as strategically important due to its energy resources, trade routes, and geopolitical position. It has aimed to project influence and secure economic and security interests in the area.

2. Political Alliances and Strategic Interests

France and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states share common concerns over regional security issues like terrorism, political Islam, and Iranian influence. This has driven closer political coordination and strategic partnerships, especially with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

France sees the UAE as a key partner in confronting regional threats and has backed the UAE’s interventions in Libya and Yemen. It has also supported the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen despite human rights criticisms.

Both sides view their partnership as a way to counterbalance other powers like Turkey, Iran, and political Islam movements in the region. France aims to maintain its influence amid a perceived US disengagement from the Middle East.

3. Economic Ties and Trade Agreements

Economic cooperation is a cornerstone of Franco-Gulf relations. Key aspects include:

  • Trade: France is a major trade partner, with non-oil trade with the UAE reaching $7.5 billion in 2019. Saudi Arabia is also an important trade partner for France.
  • Investment: The UAE and France have signed agreements to boost bilateral investment, including a $19 billion investment partnership in 2021. Major UAE sovereign wealth funds have invested substantially in French companies and sectors like technology and renewable energy.
  • Business: Over 600 French companies operate in the UAE, while around 50 Emirati firms have invested in France. The two countries launched a joint business council in 2023 to facilitate economic cooperation.

4. Military Cooperation and Arms Deals

Defense cooperation is extensive, with France being a major arms supplier to Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Notable deals include:

  • 2021: UAE signed contracts worth €16 billion for 80 Rafale jets, 12 helicopters, and armaments from France.
  • 2015: Egypt purchased 24 Rafale jets, a frigate, and missiles from France in deals worth billions.
  • 2014: Saudi Arabia purchased four corvettes from France.

France argues these arms sales support its regional strategic partnerships and influence. However, human rights groups have criticized weapons transfers given the Gulf states’ involvement in conflicts like Yemen.

5. Energy Partnerships and Nuclear Developments

Energy cooperation is a major focus given France’s interests in securing supplies and the Gulf’s role as an energy hub. Key areas include:

  • 2022: France and UAE established a Comprehensive Strategic Energy Partnership to cooperate across sectors like oil/gas, renewables, and nuclear energy.
  • Nuclear: France has supported the UAE’s nuclear energy program, providing technology, fuel, and training. It has praised the UAE’s Barakah nuclear plant.
  • Renewables: French firms like EDF are involved in major renewable energy projects in the Gulf, such as the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai.

The two sides aim to develop partnerships in emerging areas like hydrogen, carbon capture, and marine energy research.

6. Cultural Exchanges and Influence

Cultural ties are an important aspect, with France aiming to promote its language, education, and cultural influence in the Gulf through initiatives like:

  • The Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, a major cultural project opened in 2017 with French expertise and content.
  • The Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi was established in 2006.
  • Archaeological missions, French schools, and language institutes across the Gulf states.
  • The UAE funds restoration projects like the Chateau de Fontainebleau.

France sees cultural outreach as a way to build long-term partnerships and project its soft power in the region.

7. French Expatriates and Community Dynamics

There are sizable French expatriate communities in the Gulf, especially in the UAE, where over 30,000 French nationals reside. Their presence is linked to the economic, educational and cultural cooperation between France and Gulf states.

However, community dynamics and rights issues have occasionally caused friction, such as controversies over French opposition figures operating in the Gulf or French concerns over expatriate security amid regional tensions.

8. Human Rights Discussions and Controversies

France’s close defense and economic ties with Gulf monarchies have faced criticism from human rights groups over the lack of scrutiny on human rights issues in those countries. Key concerns include:

  • Involvement of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and UAE in the Yemen conflict and associated civilian casualties.
  • Lack of political freedoms, rights issues concerning women, use of the death penalty, and treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf states.

France has generally prioritized its strategic interests over vocal human rights criticism of its Gulf partners. However, it claims to raise rights issues through diplomatic channels.

9. Challenges and Criticisms of Bilateral Relations

While France touts its strategic partnerships in the Gulf, critics point to several challenges:

  • Accusations that France overlooks human rights for commercial interests and regional influence.
  • Perceptions that France is getting caught between US and Chinese spheres of influence amid great power rivalry in the Gulf.
  • Questions over the long-term reliability of Gulf partners given their transactional foreign policies and shifting alliances.
  • Concerns that deepening defense ties could embroil France in regional conflicts like Yemen.

There are also debates about whether France’s approach is too unilateral and not aligned with EU policies towards the Gulf.

10. Future Prospects in Franco-Gulf Cooperation

Despite the challenges, France and Gulf states are likely to maintain close strategic ties given their mutual interests:

  • France aims to preserve its economic, political, and cultural influence in a region that it views as strategically vital.
  • Gulf states value France as a partner that can provide security, arms, nuclear/energy cooperation and political support distinct from the US.
  • Both sides seek to counterbalance threats like Iran, Turkey, and political Islam in the region through their partnership.

However, France may face growing pressure to address human rights more substantively. Navigating great power rivalries involving the US, China, and Russia in the Gulf could also test this partnership’s future trajectory.

In summary, while deep-rooted and multi-faceted, Franco-Gulf ties will likely remain an avenue for pragmatic cooperation underpinned by strategic interests but with inherent complexities to manage.

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