France takes more assertive role in Gulf with planned military base in the U.A.E.

On a three-day trip, President Nicolas Sarkozy also inked economic and nuclear deals with Gulf states.

Erik Feferberg/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (l.), walks with Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates inside the presidential palace in Abu Dhabi. President Sarkozy's tour of the Arab Gulf states has resulted in significant military, nuclear and economic deals, giving France more influence in the region.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has wrapped up a tour of the Arab Gulf states, signing a number of significant military, nuclear, and economic deals that thrust France into a key regional role.

On Tuesday, agreement was reached with the United Arab Emirates granting France a permanent military base in the Gulf, the first for a Western power other than the United States.

"The base will be permanent. It will be the first such French base in the Gulf and it will face the Strait of Hormuz," the strategic oil gateway out of the Gulf, a French presidential source told the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

Agreement was also reached to help the UAE develop civilian nuclear-energy facilities, including the construction of two nuclear-power reactors for Abu Dhabi. President Sarkozy also offered to help Saudi Arabia, which he visited before heading to the UAE, develop a civilian nuclear energy program.

"France responds to its friends," said Sarkozy, calling the UAE deal "a sign to all that France is participating in the stability of this region."

On top of military and nuclear deals, the presidential visit helped secure billions of dollars worth of business for French companies.

Observers say the agreements with Sunni Arab states and the establishment of a military base only a short distance from Iran reflect Sarkozy's desire to ally himself with the US in countering Iranian influence.

Sarkozy has been active in calling for tough action against Iran's nuclear program, which many suspect may have military as well as civilian applications.

Commenting that there was a clear difference between the peaceful civilian use of nuclear energy and Iran's nuclear program, Sarkozy told Al Jazeera during his trip that:

"... [T]here is no reason to prevent Arab countries from using nuclear energy for civilian and peaceful purposes...."
"France tells Iran 'give up your race for a nuclear weapon - it's a risk and you don't really need it'. And, if you [Iran] stop the race for a nuclear weapon, you would have access to civilian nuclear power."

At the same time, analysts say that the visit, coming while President Bush tours the Middle East, points to Sarkozy's wish for a more assertive French role in the oil-rich region. The Times of Britain refers to "an emerging contest for clout in the Gulf."

According to Shahram Chubin, a Middle East expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, the Gulf states are open to greater French influence and support, reports the Associated Press.

"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."

The BBC commented that while "France might be seen as aligning itself more openly with the US ... some might also welcome a French presence as an alternative to the American."

The move toward greater influence in the Gulf has surprised those accustomed to a French foreign policy concentrated on former colonies, particularly in Africa. The closest French base to the Gulf is currently in Djibouti, a former colony on the East African coast.

The move represents "a major strategic shift," reports the International Herald Tribune.

"This is quite a revolution," said a government official familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak to the news media. "We are no longer in our historic sphere of influence. Now we're in a country we never colonized."

Yet France is not completely new to the Gulf, having established military ties following the signing of a defense agreement with the Emirates in 1995. That angered the British, who regarded the kingdoms as their sphere of influence, reports the BBC.

This French success in Abu Dhabi (and Qatar) has for years irritated the British, who regarded themselves as the mentors of the rulers of the lower Gulf. ...
According to British sources, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has never got on well with the British for reasons British diplomats do not fully understand. However, his antipathy appears well-established.

With Sarkozy now back in France, some analysts worry that the provision of nuclear technology to the Gulf states may precipitate a regional arms race, reports Reuters.

A significant consequence of Iran's nuclear progress has been a move among neighboring Arab states to start their own programs. The Gulf Cooperation Council - a political alliance of six Gulf States –recently announced its consideration of a joint nuclear program under the auspices of the UN nuclear agency.

"We are talking to France, several other countries and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]," a UAE official told Reuters. "We are talking about how best to develop a safe, clean, peaceful and transparent nuclear program."

The civilian nuclear accord signed Tuesday was the third that France has agreed on with Arab nations. Libya and Algeria reached similar deals recently.

Saudi Arabia has not yet announced whether it will take up the French offer of nuclear support.

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