Global Affairs

Vive la France in the Middle East?

France's Middle East strategy reaps financial dividends for its military sector, and is based on a hard-headed analysis of external and domestic threats

LONDON • Just about the safest prediction that can be made about the Middle East is that the fate of the region remains unpredictable, as both local and outside actors ditch old allies and form new alliances with bewildering regularity.

Yet there is one country that has succeeded in charting for itself a steadier strategic course and is already reaping substantial political and economic advantages as a result: France, a nation whose activities in the region serve as a classic example of what can be achieved if one has vision and determination.

For decades, the French suffered from big historic handicaps in the Middle East. Like Britain, France was regarded throughout the Arab world as a declining former colonial power. But while most of Britain's former colonies in the region discovered that they sat on top of vast reserves of oil and gas, Lebanon and Syria - France's previous Arab possessions - ended up with only some nice beaches and some worthless mountains.

Furthermore, while the British preferred to run their Middle East colonies through a network of local kings and princes, the French ran their colonies more directly from Paris. Unquestionably, Britain had the better strategy: Most of the leading families which Britain handpicked for the region are still in power today, while the leaders which France left behind in its former colonies were quickly pushed aside by assassinations, military coups and civil wars.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

That meant that, while Britain maintained intimate and very lucrative ties with the wealthiest Arab countries, France was nowhere to be seen. The French continued to hold the upper hand in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, but none of these North African nations were crucial players in the Middle East.

And the subsequent rise of the United States as the Middle East's ultimate strategic arbiter also favoured the British rather than the French: Next to a big town house in central London, an Italianate-style mansion in a swanky Californian neighbourhood became an absolute must for any self-respecting Arab sheikh. French luxury goods producers did benefit from the Middle East's oil bonanza, but the bulk of the region's petrodollar fortunes were still deposited in London or New York.

That did not mean that France was completely absent from the Middle East. Its cultural and economic links with Lebanon and Syria remained important. As home to Europe's largest Jewish community, France's relations with Israel were always special. And for much of the 1950s and early 1960s, France was Israel's main weapons supplier; Israel's nuclear weapons owe their original technology to France.

Still, France always remained a slightly marginal player, much more interested in North Africa than the rest of the Arab world, far too awkward in its relations with the US and Britain to fit into any regional alliance structure.

And the recent wave of revolutions which came to be known as the Arab Spring initially threatened to marginalise France even further. The French not only failed to predict the upheavals which began in Tunisia, a country they should know like the back of their hand, but also for the first month of the Arab Spring, France compounded the error by refusing to believe that the Arab revolutionary trend was either serious or enduring.

But then, the French recovered their poise in spectacular fashion, to the point where their diplomatic footprint in the Arab world today is certainly superior to that of Britain, and even comparable in some respects to that of the US.

FRENCH TURNAROUND

One reason for this remarkable about-turn is that France's past weaknesses suddenly became the country's strengths. France's refusal to join in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 meant not only that France's diplomacy was prized throughout the Middle East for its independence, but also that France did not suffer the military intervention fatigue which the US and Britain experienced. So, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy led demands for a military intervention in Libya, he had far more credibility than British Prime Minister David Cameron, who ultimately tagged along.

French presidents also enjoy untrammelled powers on foreign and security policies, which meant that neither Mr Sarkozy nor current President Francois Hollande had to contend with parliamentary opposition to their actions in the way British prime ministers encountered. France, therefore, retains flexibility and nimbleness of action.

And French leaders don't have to worry too much about opposition from their public to selling weapons to governments with a doubtful human rights record: An arms sales contract with the military rulers of Egypt would elicit howls of protests in Britain or the US, but when France concluded precisely such a mega-deal recently, few even noticed.

Either way, the footprint of the French state in the Middle East is now impressive. Apart from Libya, France has conducted military interventions in Mali in 2013, and currently in the Sahel in Africa, where 3,000 French forces are fighting resurgent terrorist groups which feed on the Middle East. France is also engaging in one of the highest numbers of air strike sorties against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation.

ARMS SALES

Nor are the initiatives confined to the military. In May, President Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council leaders' summit.

And over the last six months alone, France has inked a US$3 billion (S$4 billion) deal with Saudi Arabia to supply weapons to the Lebanese army, a US$7 billion deal to sell Rafale jets to Qatar and a US$5 billion contract to sell the same planes to Egypt, facilitated by strong financial support from the United Arab Emirates.

The two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships which France could not deliver to Russia as a result of the sanctions imposed on Moscow after the Russian invasion of Ukraine have promptly been resold to Egypt, with the Russians smiling all the way, since the Egyptians will be buying Russian helicopters for the Mistrals.

And the French cash registers are continuing to ring merrily: An additional contract for US$12 billion of weapons and commercial goods has recently been concluded with Saudi Arabia.

Critics claim that all this amounts to a strategic realignment without responsibility, as the French are happy to sell weapons to the Middle East, but ultimately rely on the US to solve the region's bigger problems. Other critics point out that although the French talk a good talk, their military powers are nowhere near as strong as their aspirations: While the French government announced in April that France's defence spending would grow, the budget is still smaller than that of Britain (which is guaranteeing an increase in its own military spending until the end of the decade), and French troops occasionally have to rely on British logistics for mobility.

FRENCH CALCULATIONS

Still, there is no question that France's repositioning in the Middle East is more than just about scoring political points, or winning arms contracts at the expense of Washington and London, which used to dominate the Middle Eastern markets.

For it is based on a wider French reading of the changes in the global strategic landscape. The French feel vindicated in their long-standing prediction that the US would ultimately lose its interest in providing for Europe's defence, and that it's now time for the Europeans to look after themselves; President Barack Obama said so more or less openly.

The January terrorist attacks in Paris also testified to the link between home-grown violent extremism and regional crisis zones in the Middle East; as President Hollande told France's ambassadors recently, "there is no distinction between internal and external policy"; threats from both have to be tackled at the same time.

And unlike the US or Britain, Mr Hollande is not optimistic about the prospect that the nuclear deal with Iran will transform the Iranians into "constructive" actors in the Middle East: "High hopes must not turn into illusions or naive aspirations", the French President warned recently.

In short, France's growing presence and involvement in the Middle East is based on the realisation that not only is the region full of economic opportunities, but that it is also the launch pad for security threats which neither France nor the rest of Europe can afford to ignore.

We will hear more of the French in the Middle East in the months to come. And especially since British diplomacy now seems to be drifting aimlessly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Vive la France in the Middle East?'. Print Edition | Subscribe