France’s Expanding Military Influence in the Arabian Gulf

France’s expanding security presence and interests throughout the Middle East are growing more significant in key theaters, which is bringing Paris front and center in core regional questions. The question is whether Paris can succeed against other powers vying for influence in the region.

As illustrated by its efforts in the Sahel region, France does not shy away from the regions it colonized in the past. And while the European Union (EU) appears to be largely moving away in general from the military domain of the Middle East, and the Arabian Gulf, in particular, France’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, in addition to its military cooperation with Kuwait, run contrary to this trend.

France and the Art of the Deal

France’s role in the Arabian Gulf region is driven by the importance of the arms industry to the French economy and that industry’s ability to influence Paris’ foreign policy.

France was the third biggest exporter of arms over the period 2015 to 2017, finishing behind the U.S. and Russia, but ahead of major arms exporters such as China, Germany, and the UK.

France was the third biggest exporter of arms over the period 2015 to 2017, finishing behind the U.S. and Russia, but ahead of major arms exporters such as China, Germany, and the UK. France was negotiating with numerous Arabian Gulf states about sales of the Rafale jet fighter, which involved a transactional approach in which Abu Dhabi was playing Paris against London in terms of a future, high-performance, next-generation, fighter aircraft.  

French officials thought that the opening of the Camp de la Paix (“Peace Camp”) naval facility in Abu Dhabi in 2009 would help pave the way for further procurement and purchase of systems. It did not.

As four out of five top clients of the French arms industry are from the Arabian Gulf, it goes without saying that the French have become more active in the security sector of the region in recent years. In particular, the almost monthly visits by officials from French security ministries to the region, in addition to the already ongoing lobbying from the permanent French representations there, and collaboration between French and Arabian Gulf countries’ ministries of defense through exercises and conferences, form a key part of France’s strategy to expand its influence on the Arabian Gulf countries’ security forces and strategies. The near monthly tours of senior French diplomats to the Arabian Gulf is illustrative of how seriously Paris takes it responsibility and diplomatic ties to these states. On top of these diplomatic visits, financial ties between Doha and Paris go back decades.

While the French are increasing their presence in the security sectors of the Arabian Gulf, the rest of the EU appears to be more apprehensive about getting involved. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark have all stated they will not sell arms to any of the coalition members active in Yemen, as they would be indirectly contributing to the ongoing humanitarian crisis there.

In direct contrast to this suspension of arms sales by their fellow EU members, the French recently signed a new agreement, said to be worth several billion dollars, with Saudi Arabia for the construction of ships. Several French companies also signed new arms deals with the UAE during the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in February. Paris sees these agreements as key to France’s long-term interests and the stability of the region.

These new agreements are not a new trend, however, but merely a continuation of the rise in arms sales in the region that was already apparent in the summer of 2018, when France doubled its arms sales to the Middle East. In particular, the French appear to have diversified their markets in comparison to previous years, selling more and more arms to countries such as Qatar and Kuwait, rather than just the UAE and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the UAE and Saudi Arabia remain among the top importers of French arms. French arms are of particular importance to the UAE, which is illustrated by the prominent role that the French Leclerc tank plays in the Emirati army and its use by the UAE on the battlefields in Yemen.

France is one of the few European countries where the arms industry is not held in check by the parliament. Although the French government is not directly responsible for the sale of arms to countries involved in conflict, France’s relative silence on events in Yemen are telling.

Throughout 2018, France hosted several top-level military meetings and even held a military drill with the Kuwaiti military named “Pearl of the West” which was meant to enhance cooperation between the two militaries.

Moreover, the French do not merely sell arms to the Arabian Gulf; they are also actively involved in shaping the military structures and strategies of Arabian Gulf countries, in particular Kuwait and Qatar. Throughout 2018, France hosted several top-level military meetings and even held a military drill with the Kuwaiti military named “Pearl of the West” which was meant to enhance cooperation between the two militaries. It also vocally backed Kuwait’s mediation efforts aimed at mending ties between the GCC countries. Recently, the two countries met for the second Kuwait-France strategic dialogue in Paris, further cementing their collaboration in the field of politics, economy, and defense. The French have held similar talks with the Qataris, eventually producing a strategic dialogue agreement. These talks, pursuing traditional Paris-Doha military and financial ties, covered issues related not only to the economy and investment, but also to issues such as counterterrorism and defense.

Future Prospects for French Involvement in the Arabian Gulf

Given the U.S.’ waning enthusiasm for its security obligations to its allies, and reports claiming that Washington will even demand that host countries of U.S. troops pay for their upkeep and then some, and considering the Chinese reluctance to intervene in the security domain, could France be a credible third alternative provider of security?

Although the French have been influential in the Sahel region and are involved in a rivalry with Italy over determining the next ruling faction in Libya, it remains very doubtful that the French would be willing to play such a hands-on role in the Arabian Gulf. First of all, France simply lacks the resources and manpower necessary to maintain security guarantees in the region. Such an effort would possibly demand EU cooperation, but given the apprehension of most EU countries regarding selling arms to the region, an extensive security presence would likely be met with even more resistance. Moreover, even within France itself, criticism has been raised over France’s dealings with the Arabian Gulf countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular. Given the lack of popular support for a physical presence in the region, it appears unlikely that the French government would pursue such a role in an overt way.

Instead of a physical presence then, the French government aspires to play a role through its moral leadership and serve as a power broker in the region. Given Paris’ ties to neutral countries like Kuwait, as well as both sides of the GCC-crisis, the French are well-positioned to become a tie-breaker in the region.

The world already witnessed an early example of this when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was held in Saudi Arabia as part of the kingdom’s 2017 “anti-corruption” campaign and, given the financial ties between all three countries, Macron made an unscheduled visit to Riyadh in order to bring the crisis to an end. As a result of this visit, Hariri left for France averting an escalation of tension. Macron even went so far as to claim that, without France, Lebanon would be at war.

There is another player on Paris’ radar, and that is the UK—especially after Brexit.

There is another player on Paris’ radar, and that is the UK—especially after Brexit. Despite the Brexit catastrophe, the UK is moving forward with basing additional personnel in Bahrain and Oman. That both Paris and London’s interests stretch across a wide geopolitical space signal that these two European capitals need to find ways of cooperation given the Arabian Gulf’s trajectory with the Qatar crisis and the results of working with allies against a Russian-led process to settle many of the region’s crises.

Iran too calculates into the strategic mix. The Arabian Gulf states will be watching carefully how France handles the Iranian sanctions.

Creeping around from all directions and using a mix of optics and tactics, Russia is also attempting to influence serious geopolitical challenges that are in France’s interest.

As France continues seeking to expand its military influence in the Arabian Gulf, there is no doubt that Paris is tasked with navigating the geopolitics of an extremely complicated part of the Middle East.