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Why does France need a military base in the Gulf? Nouvelle désert vieux amis

Posted By Emile Tayyip

January 17, 2008

Abandoning France’s traditional policy of solely selling arms to Gulf states, President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a deal with Abu Dhabi for a permanent military base of up to 500 French troops in the UAE; a move that reflects the new French stance towards Iran as well as its closer ties with Washington.

According to an article on the International Herald Tribune, the deal would enable France to project its troops into a crucial oil-producing region where many countries are concerned over Iran’s rising influence.

France already has long-standing military cooperation deals with Arab Gulf states, including the UAE and Qatar. It has sold Mirage jet fighters and AMX-30 tanks to Abu Dhabi and has had a defence agreement with it since 1995.

"France responds to its friends," Sarkozy told journalists last week following the signing of the new military accord. "France and the Emirates signed a reciprocal defense accord in 1995. Our friends from the Emirates asked that this accord be prolonged and asked that a base with 400 personnel be opened."

The military accord makes France one of the first Western states other than the U.S. to have a permanent base in the Gulf region, that’s why many analysts say that the new deal indicates that Paris is aligning itself more openly with Washington, which has also been selling arms to Gulf states.

Outside of Iraq, the U.S. has more than 40,000 troops on bases across the Gulf, including the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. The British army also has a small presence in the Gulf: The Royal Air Force operates out of Al Udeid, a U.S. air force base in Qatar, and the military is part of the coalition naval task force based in Bahrain.

Some analysts say that some Gulf leaders would welcome a French military presence as an alternative to the American or the British. This paved the way for France to make its move, although it’s still unclear what use Paris would make of its military base in the Gulf.

Nuclear power

The UAE and France also signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, which commits Paris to build two nuclear power reactors for Abu Dhabi. The accord is the third France has signed recently with Arab nations, after Libya and Algeria. Sarkozy also offered Saudi Arabia nuclear assistance during his recent visit to the oil-rich kingdom.

According to the BBC, the nuclear deals indicate the interest that Gulf states are showing in nuclear power, despite their own oil and gas resources, and highlights their concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, which the West claims is aimed at making atomic weapons, despite Tehran’s repeated denials.

Shahram Chubin, an expert in the Middle East and Iran at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, said the French-UAE deals give France a shop window in the Persian Gulf, while the Emirates get an alternative Western supplier for such technology.

"Most of the states in the Gulf are not terribly happy (with) — but have no alternative to reliance on — the U.S., and this diversifies it, or at least gives the appearance of diversifying it," he said.

The nuclear accords also reflect the change in France’s policy towards Iran. Paris is already playing an active role in trying to increase UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

According to Chubin, the base and nuclear technology deals are consistent with Sarkozy's more activist policies against Iran and closer ties with the U.S.

"This 500-man base is not going to be much of a deterrent, but it's a symbolic indicator ... that France wants to do more and doesn't want to leave the region to the U.S. alone," he said.

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