Thursday, January 17, 2008

France's emerging role in the Middle East

Sarkozy's tour of the Gulf reaped significant rewards for France. Not only did he continue to pour out nuclear deals with Arab states (in a move to counter Iran's nuclear development), he has won a contract with the UAE to build France's first naval base in the Middle East.

From the Boston Globe:

Military analysts and officials said that it would take several months to build the French base and that 400 troops were not enough to deter Iran or significantly shift the balance of power in the region.
But they also said the new base was an important symbolic step that signaled that Paris wanted to play a greater role in the future.
Sarkozy has made his intentions quite clear since gaining the presidency that he wants to reinstate France's status in the world. He has patched up ties with the US, annoyed his EU counterparts with the renewal of French vigour, and has homed in on the Middle East through a series of lucrative deals from Qaddafi to, now, the Emirates.
Whereas Chirac was cautious on his position in regards to Iran, Sarkozy has taken the driver's seat, and has reiterated his firm stance. Now it appears the harsh words are turning into action with the establishment of a navy base opposite Iran.
France is back, or at least trying to make a come back, and it seems the French are serving as a complimentary accessory to the US policy in the region. The US is restricted in developing nuclear energy with its Arab allies, mainly by Israel's anxiety, and to a lesser extent Russia's anxiety. So who to call in for the favour? France. The French are reaping the benefits from the Iran-US stand off, and are tip-toeing behind American developments in the region and picking up the treasure.
The French, like the rest of the world, are aware that American domination in the region is declining as a result of the Iraq blunder. The exit of US power has attracted many other players to the region, as well as boosting the confidence in current regional powers to expand their presence, like Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia signalled its renewed interest in the region last year with its opening of a naval base in Syria, in addition to its own nuclear and military deals with Iran and Syria. Putin also conducted a tour of the rich Gulf last year in a bid to snatch lucrative military and nuclear development deals off the Gulf's Western allies.
France, has decided, it is going to join the list. Sarkozy is adamant in his pursuit of a Mediterranean Union, despite great cynicism of his intentions from Berlin and Brussels. A Mediterranean Union will have a damaging impact on the EU, which is seeking to unify Europe rather than create miniature regional alliances within its boundaries. France sees the Mediterranean Union as its way of regaining global dominance. It wants to create its own sphere of influence.
It's no surprise then that France is on the drive to pick up the pieces of America's collapsing power in the Arab world. For the moment, the French will toe the US' policy in the region, but it is attempting to merge as a dominant, independent player in the region who's policies will be driven by its own interests, without requiring to consult Washington for every move.
However, there is a caution Sarkozy must take in his endeavour to reclaim France's glory. The US is losing against Iran in the region. A tense wedge has been created between the Sunni Arabs and the Iranian-Syrian axis. The Sunni Arab team is struggling to compete. Does France really want to be responsible for a losing team after the US calls it quits?

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