France and the UAE: A deepening partnership in uncertain times

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan for a working lunch at the Chateau de Fontainebleau in Fontainebleau near Paris, France, September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

In mid-September, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the crown prince and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (widely known as MBZ), at the historic Chateau de Fontainbleu outside Paris, recently restored with UAE funding. Over the past number of years, and despite some setbacks, Paris and Abu Dhabi have developed a multi-layered strategic partnership that encompasses political, security, and economic dimensions.

Deeper French-Emirati engagement highlights a key trend in Europe-Gulf relations. Despite years of engagement at a multilateral level between the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Gulf and European countries have largely bypassed multilateral mechanisms and have opted to deepen their relationship at a bilateral level. Both as a result of structural and contingent factors, bilateralism has tended to prevail in EU-GCC relations with individual countries on both sides competing with each other in the advancement of their goals. The failure to establish a region-to-region free trade agreement (FTA) in 2008 dealt a severe blow to the EU-GCC multilateral framework, as did the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 and the ensuing conflict and fragmentation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In a recently published edited volume titled “The European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council: Towards a New Path”, we explore these trends, examine the various aspects of EU-GCC relations and their trajectory moving forward.

L’ennemi de mon ennemi, est mon ami

It is no surprise that the UAE and France have moved to deepen their ties as they are aligned on many issues in the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya, they have both supported Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Hifter over the government in Tripoli. Along with other external powers, both have contributed to perpetuating the country’s civil war.

They have also had challenging relations with Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They have supported Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, including participating in joint naval exercises last year. While Turkey and the UAE have recently moved to settle some of their differences amongst a growing regional détente, it remains to be seen if this is a permanent de-escalation or a shorter-term strategic calculation.

Furthermore, both Macron and MBZ share a distrust of Islamist political parties across the region. The UAE has been very active in recent years in fostering inter-faith dialogue initiatives to cultivate an image as a moderate and welcoming Muslim country. Overall, both Emirati and French leaders have shown a tendency to focus on stability and the continuation of the status quo ante in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The UAE: Seeking a larger role

The past few years have been a busy time for Emirati diplomacy. Under founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled from 1971-2004, the UAE’s foreign policy was grounded in a cautious approach and the young country viewed itself within a Gulf, Arab, and Muslim world context. Over the past years under MBZ and especially after the Arab Spring, this has shifted and the country has grown more assertive and ambitious in the region and across the world.

In addition to expanding its ties to France, the UAE has been also deepening its engagement with China by signing a comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing. According to one analyst, the UAE’s “mercantile grand strategy of controlling access to key maritime checkpoints in the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, made Abu Dhabi an important partner for Beijing.”

The Abraham Accords and resulting normalization with Israel were also a boon for Emirati diplomacy. Having been cultivated by President Donald Trump in his early days, the deal was concluded in August 2020, giving Trump a “win” ahead of the election. At the same time, the accords highlighted the UAE’s importance and indispensability to Joe Biden’s team, providing Abu Dhabi with the needed platform to diffuse potential challenges with what became the new administration and ensuring a much-coveted F-35 fighter jet deal went ahead.

The U.S. response to the Arab Spring and subsequent developments in the region have highlighted to GCC and Emirati leaders in particular that the American commitment to the MENA region (and to their regimes) is not as ironclad as they had thought. The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and continued signals from the Biden administration that it wants to limit its exposure to instability from the region, have reinforced that view. While the U.S. currently underwrites Gulf security, GCC leaders need to increasingly imagine and prepare for an unpredictable regional security environment and rely on themselves more as the U.S. “pivots” to Asia.

The view from Paris: Business and security go hand-in-hand

Despite setbacks that have included calls to boycott French products after inflammatory comments by Macron, France has undoubtedly been the most active European country in the MENA region over the past few years. And the UAE has been the pivot of French activism both on security issues and in business. Indeed, these represent two sides of the same coin.

Bilateral trade between Paris and Abu Dhabi has been thriving in the past few years. This includes approximately $4 billion annually of French goods exported to the UAE, as well as lucrative arms deals worth 8.3 billion euros in 2020. Conversely, imports to France (estimated at 1.1 billion euros) are dominated by hydrocarbons.

There are more than 600 French companies working in the United Arab Emirates and their number has increased by roughly 10% annually in recent years. Among the most active sectors of the cooperation, defense stands out, thanks to the presence of French permanent military bases in Abu Dhabi, hosting more than 700 soldiers, since a 2009 joint defense agreement.

However, French-Emirati bilateral relations are not limited to the military-industrial nexus. In the era of Gulf “Visions” and of ambitious plans to foster sustainable development, investments in renewable energy — as well as the sharing of nuclear know-how — are gaining traction. Similarly, cultural and academic cooperation is the domain that has been developed the most and the one on which both the French government and Emirati rulers bet with a view to casting a positive mutual image and to attracting further investments. From the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi established back in 2006 and part of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 to the world-famous Louvre Abu Dhabi museum inaugurated in November 2017, French culture and language are seen as a pillar of cooperation that can contribute to “building a more open, united, tolerant and peaceful world.” In this context, it is not a coincidence that at the recently-opened Expo 2020 Dubai France occupies a central place, both physically and symbolically.

But hydrocarbons, defense cooperation, and culture are not necessarily the end goals in themselves for France vis-à-vis the UAE, the Gulf, and the broader Middle East. They are means to attain greater security and leverage in diplomatic terms, both domestically and externally, by exploiting France’s added value and ability to attract investments in business and defense. From Beirut to Baghdad (and including recent setbacks with Algiers), Macron has focused on strengthening France’s role in the region to protect the human connections existing between MENA populations and France due to the presence of conspicuous diasporas, which translate into very developed security, commercial, and people-to-people ties.

Bilateralism rules the day  

The Qatar blockade, cooler relations with Oman, and disagreements with close ally Saudi Arabia highlight how the GCC as an institution is less important for the UAE, as Abu Dhabi seeks to play a larger independent role that often puts it at odds with its neighbors. The same might be said for France, which is often seen projecting its own autonomous foreign policy role in the Gulf and wider Middle East beyond the contours of the EU’s multilateral engagement to the region. Having been recently blindsided by some of its closest allies with the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S., it is no surprise that French policymakers will continue to deepen their engagement with other partners in the MENA region and across the world.

As we have argued in our volume, when it comes to the Gulf, individual EU member states have relentlessly hedged between various parties to protect their own interests and businesses. This has, among other factors, contributed to weakening the EU’s common Gulf approach and policies. Despite this, the space still exists to work at the multilateral level and leverage existing opportunities and cooperation mechanisms to unlock the EU-GCC relationship’s full potential.

The recent visit of Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, to Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia from September 30 to October 3 — his first official visit to the Gulf region in the role — could represent the first step in this direction. Expectations are high but until they are met, bilateralism will rule the day.