France strengthens its bond with UAE

The establishment of a military base in Abu Dhabi is the culmination of three decades of increasingly intimate diplomacy.

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Observers could be forgiven for perceiving France's growing presence in the UAE as both recent and sudden, said Alain Azouaou, the French ambassador. France, which is involved in a range of endeavours here - including art projects, universities and civilian nuclear power - seems to have stamped its tricolour on much of the UAE's development over the past five years. With a military base in Abu Dhabi also nearing completion, it could appear to have happened very quickly.

"Suddenly you say, 'Ah, France is here!' France was here," Mr Azouaou said. "We have had excellent military co-operation and it is in the framework of our military co-operation, which is growing closer and closer, that the base should be understood." In fact, he said, the obvious confidence in France's relationship with the UAE follows three decades of increasingly intimate diplomacy. But for Mr Azouaou, the projects, which include a satellite campus for the Paris-Sorbonne University, civilian nuclear-power assistance and an outpost in Abu Dhabi for the Louvre Museum, the closeness of the two nations represents more than just strong bilateral ties. They reveal a vision for the future of dialogue between civilisations.

"How can a dialogue on culture be something that is only for a symposium, or a conference?" Mr Azouaou said. "Here, dialogue between cultures can be something concrete through real projects." The UAE and France share a perspective on many cultural and political issues, as well as economic goals, the ambassador said. While the UAE is seeking to define and preserve its identity, France has begun an ambitious effort to promote its language and artistic heritage abroad.

France and the UAE both want to preserve cultural diversity, he said, and it is not an issue of opposing globalisation. "I am sure that we share the same views on what is important for globalisation, for the global world: recognition of the importance of heritage. How we can preserve heritage? How we can learn from heritage? And this is not only our own heritage, but how we can share our respective heritage and our common heritage?"

The distinctly French take on the imperative of cultural preservation, however, has made the Louvre Abu Dhabi project controversial at home, where some purists have accused the government of auctioning France's artistic history to the highest bidder. Mr Azouaou attributes that reaction to the experimental nature of the project, which would be the first of its kind to regularly rotate parts of the collection housed at the famous Parisian facility through a foreign museum.

"In France, the population traditionally defends, more than many others, the concept of a universality of culture," he said. "Today, the experts who work on this project are very enthusiastic. They feel as though they are writing a promised future. They feel like they are participating in a unique and exciting project." Much of the relationship's closeness, said the ambassador, was due to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his stated doctrine of increased engagement in the Middle East. Since becoming president in May last year, Mr Sarkozy has championed a Union for the Mediterranean, a proposed international community that he has said would deepen ties between Europe and the Arab world. He has also signed civil nuclear-assistance deals with Libya, Algeria and the UAE, and is negotiating such deals with Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - a strategy that has been called "nuclear diplomacy".

Much of France's new emphasis on the Gulf stems from the French government's recognition that Europe and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula should "triangulate" their diplomatic and development efforts to help resolve security concerns in the rest of the Middle East, said Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris. "The [American] neocons sold us this sort of tale that the world was unipolar, it was only the US and the rest," said Prof Kepel. "After the fiasco in Iraq, it's become crystal clear even in the Beltway, that this is not the case. I think that there are many in France who believe that we need to join forces with the Middle East and the Gulf and make a new space that would stretch from Europe to the Gulf, something that would allow us to bring together the assets and the liabilities of both."

France's close connection with the Emirates dates to the genesis of the country in the early 1970s. When the British vacated their protectorates in the Gulf, the newly formed UAE looked for a security patron that could ensure regional stability, said Mustafa Alani, the research director for the Gulf Research Centre. "The option that the UAE had at that time was between Americans, British or France," he said. "They had good relations with all three, but for unknown reasons, they decided to move closer to France, especially in terms of the military and the supply of military equipment.

What began as strictly military ties have blossomed into a comprehensive relationship, he said. But as American prestige and military capability has waned in the years since, France has emerged as an even more reliable partner. "You have to remember that the relationship with France is less embarrassing than a relationship with the United States," said Dr Alani. "There's strong anti-American sentiment in the whole region because of support for Israel and other things. Ties with France have the added benefit of not threatening the US and its continued status as the Gulf's security guarantor.

"Because Sarkozy moved very close to the United States from day one of his policy, the UAE doesn't feel embarrassed giving the French a base here, buying French arms, considering a cultural relationship or talking about nuclear power. Sarkozy is not in competition with the United States." More recently, Mr Sarkozy has used the French presidency of the Council of the European Union to accelerate negotiations for a free-trade agreement between the EU and the GCC. Mr Azouaou expects the negotiations, which have dragged on for nearly two decades, to be completed by the end of this year - a goal that Dr Alani called "over-ambitious" because of the many unresolved complications involved with instituting free trade between more than 30 countries.

Like many other initiatives that demand co-operation between France and the UAE, Mr Azouaou said the importance of the proposed free trade agreement goes beyond economic concerns. "For us, this accord isn't simply a commercial agreement. Beyond that, it's an accord that will permit expanded dialogues between the regions," he said. "Of course, President Sarkozy has said at the beginning of his presidency that one of his main points is to try to finalise this agreement.

"We have pushed for more meetings, constructive meetings, between the European Commission and the GCC Secretariat."