Saudi, UAE head to Paris to offer helping hand to West Africa force

French president Emmanuel Macron sees the full implementation of the G5 force as a long-term exit strategy for his own forces that intervened in 2013

French President Emmanuel Macron at the opening session of the G5 Sahel force summit in Bamako, Mali, on Sunday July 2, 2017, with the heads of state from five nations across Africa's Sahel region. L-R Burkina-Faso president Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Mauritania president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President Macron, Mali president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Chad president Idriss Deby and Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou. Baba Ahmed / AP
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Saudi Arabia and the UAE are attending a summit in Paris on Wednesday aimed at accelerating efforts to set up a West African force to battle Islamist militants, a sign Gulf Arab states are upping their influence in the region.

The G5 Sahel — composed of the armies of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad — launched a symbolic military operation to mark its creation in October amid growing unrest in the Sahel, whose porous borders are regularly crossed by jihadists, including affiliates of Al Qaeda and ISIL.

However, France, which has some 4,000 troops in the region, has bemoaned that the militants have scored military and symbolic victories in West Africa while the G5 force has struggled to win financing and become operational.

To achieve those ends, French president Emmanuel Macron is hosting among others the leaders of the five participating countries, Germany and Italy as well as the Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers.

Thousands of UN peacekeepers, French troops and US military trainers and drone operators have failed so far to stem the growing wave of extremist violence, leading world powers to pin their hopes on the new force.

"For the last few months, the activity of terrorist groups has not decreased and the armies continue to suffer significant losses, which means that there is an operational urgency to regain control of the region and to increase the military effort," a French diplomatic source said.

Among efforts to widen support, Mr Macron has pressed Saudi Arabia to take concrete actions to fight ISIL militants and asked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to contribute to the G5 when he saw him last month.

Mr Macron sees the full implementation of the G5 force as a long-term exit strategy for his own forces that intervened in 2013 to beat back an insurgency in northern Mali.

"The objective is increased military, political and financial mobilisation," the source said, adding that the aim was to get the 5,000-strong force running by March 2018.

Saudi Arabia has now pledged $100 million (Dh367.3m), a major boost for the force, bringing commitments to more than half the roughly $500 million the G5 Sahel says it needs for its first year of operations. The UAE is also funding a G5 "war school" in Mauritania that is due to open in January.

Prince Mohammed is also setting up a separate Islamic military coalition, whose member countries can request or offer assistance to each other to fight militants. This could include military help, financial aid, equipment or security expertise.