The ties that bind Doha and Paris

A French court's decision to block renovations to a 17th-century mansion owned by Qatari prince is seen as a minor spat in a long relationship of economic trade.

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A court ruling this week blocking a Doha prince's plans to restore a historic Paris villa are being seen as little more than a hiccup in what many regard as a blossoming love affair between Qatar and France. Links between the two are now seen as much more than those of two nations pursuing mutual goals. Rather, the relationship appears based on a concerted effort by the French to woo the gas-rich Gulf state, underpinned by a personal bond between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar.

"The emir and Sarkozy are so close that, whenever there's business to be done - and that's a lot of business - the emir calls Sarko directly, bypassing the usual diplomatic channels," said Pepe Escobar, the author of several books on globalisation and a columnist for Asia Times. "In terms of global power couples, few rival the complicity between the emir of Qatar and adrenalin junkie and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. After all, Sarkozy could not find a better partner to anchor France's Arab foreign policy."

The relationship dates back to when Mr Sarkozy was interior minister and now extends to a friendship between the president's wife, Carla Bruni, and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Misnad, the emir's second wife who is regarded as one of the most powerful women in the Arab world. So deep appears the bond - along with a Gallic determination to attract as much Qatari investment in France as possible - that, earlier this year, the French parliament passed a bill that created special tax exemptions for the emir and his Qatari companies on property they own in France.

An appendix to the bill highlighted the "very strong" and "privileged" relations between France and Qatar, based on "the wish of the Qataris to diversify their alliances and their partnerships so as not to depend exclusively on the United States". "The wording of the act was very odd, but it did show that Sarkozy was determined to plough his own furrow, at least in the Middle East," said one diplomat. "France has had close ties with Qatar for some years but they have become even closer since Sarkozy became president [in 2007]."

That closeness has manifested itself in a wide variety of ways, from joint diplomatic initiatives to trade deals and, particularly, Qatari investment in France, notably in the property sector. While London has remained a prime attraction for Qatari riyals, Paris has been catching up fast with extensive investments in recent years in the commercial district and hotels sector, as well as in apartments bought by wealthy Qataris. The emir himself has homes both in Paris and Cannes.

"Certainly, more piles of cash are invested in London, but the emir's heart beats for Paris," wrote Escobar recently. "Qatar is literally taking over rows and rows of office buildings between Opera and Madeleine in central Paris. "Why real estate? It's because [that is] what Qataris know best. Even the mayor of Paris, the colourful Bertrand Delanoe, is now in full campaign to make the Qataris invest in other, less pricey, Parisian neighbourhoods."

All of which has made the court decision this week to block the restoration of the 17th century Hotel Lambert by the emir's brother, Prince Abdullah bin Abdullah al Thani, something of an embarrassment. Mr Sarkozy's government, in the form of the ministry of culture, had backed the ?40 million (Dh216m) redevelopment but local campaigners successfully took the prince to court saying such additions as an underground car park would ruin a building that dates back to 1639 and whose former residents have included Chopin and Voltaire.

Nevertheless, few expect the row to permanently damage France-Qatar relations. Both sides have invested too much to ensure that it does not. Aside from Qatar's growing investments in France, the Gulf state currently purchases about 80 per cent of its military equipment from the French and a branch of the famous Saint-Cyr military academy is being set up in Doha. France wants to sell more planes, both military and civilian, to the emir and would like to throw in a few nuclear reactors, too.

And why not when the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's most famous horse race, now has the word "Qatar" in front of it after a five-year sponsorship deal was signed last December? There is even serious talk of a stage of the Tour de France being held in Qatar. On the diplomatic front, too, the French and Qataris have pulled off some notable coups. One of Mr Sarkozy's first successes as president was to secure - with a good deal of help from the emir - the release of some Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya on wholly bogus charges that they had been responsible for spreading the Aids virus.

More significantly, the two operated together last year to bring together the warring factions in Lebanon. However, an article in Newsweek this summer suggested that the close diplomatic ties between Paris and Doha might be starting to fray. "Some of Sarkozy's advisers are concerned that Qatar may have slipped too far into the Iranian orbit," the magazine said. "One of Sarkozy's advisers, speaking privately, suggests that as tensions over Iran's nuclear programme look likely to increase, and the possibility of Iranian retaliation against Western allies goes up as well, the Qataris are terrified they'll be at the top of Tehran's target list.

"Their instinct may be to accommodate rather than resist. So Sarkozy's advisers are encouraging him to do a better job diversifying French relationships in the Gulf." Newsweek pointed out that, when the French president visited the Gulf earlier this year, he missed out Qatar and concentrated instead on Kuwait, Oman and Abu Dhabi. "These are three countries where there are British traditions and a marked American influence and France hasn't invested in them politically or commercially for a long time," Mr Sarkozy told reporters with remarkable frankness.

"But we're planting the seeds and we'll fight to defend our businesses and take home contracts." Qatar, it seems, could have rivals - on the diplomatic front, at least - for the fickle affections of France.