France’s influence and role in its traditional spheres of influence in West Africa have diminished rapidly in recent times. Although matters have not settled and have not resolved conclusively in this region, which has become an arena for international conflicts, Paris considers that maintaining its international standing and weight requires flexible and swift responses to these strategic changes, writes Salem AlKetbi, UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.
On the flip side, the strong partnership relations between some of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one hand, and France on the other hand, are well-established and have grown clearly in recent years. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, recently made an official visit to France, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also made an important visit to the French Republic.
France is one of the traditional strategic partners of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and there are strong and growing historical relations with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince visited France in 2018, during which both sides signed cooperation agreements and protocols worth about $18 billion. He also visited Paris in July 2022.
In return, Riyadh welcomed the French President, Emmanuel Macron, in December 2021. During his visit, they signed several agreements and memoranda of understanding in the fields of industry, culture, space, and technology. Additionally, they agreed on a massive cultural project to develop the Al Ula Governorate and establish a facility for the production of military aircraft structures and engine maintenance. All of these indicate the depth of the two countries’ relations, their ongoing communication, and continuity.
The French Minister of Defense, Sébastien Lecornu, made a recent tour from September 6 to 11 of this month, which included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. It reflects Paris’s interest in enhancing its partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and strengthening French strategic presence in the Gulf region, highly important for all major powers.
According to specialized international reports, the Middle East and North Africa region is the most attractive market for French arms exports, which have increased considerably in recent years. France has become one of the top five arms exporters globally, holding a prominent position among the suppliers of defense weapons to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
The defense dimension is one of the pillars of the partnership between France and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but it does not cover all aspects of the relationships. There are other vital aspects that build these partnerships. France appears to need to strengthen its relations, presence, and influence in the Middle East for several reasons and considerations. The most important one is the strong and growing threat facing French traditional influence in West Africa.
Matters have worsened between France and several African countries such as Mali, Niger, and most recently Gabon, where military coups have brought regimes opposed to French policies. This development threatens not only France’s influence but also its strategic interests. The loss of control over uranium mines in Niger and Gabon is a considerable setback for the French economy and interests.
Another important consideration is that the US has encroached on Paris’s influence in that African region in recent years. The US cites reasons such as counterterrorism and combating extremism. France has been concerned about its roles in its traditional sphere of influence.
There is a third consideration related to the escalating international competition for shaping the post-Ukraine war order. China and Russia are racing with the West to accumulate power and influence and to build alliances with countries and blocs alike to create a fairer and more balanced global system. In this context, France finds itself in an unenviable position because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine with no apparent solution and because of the shrinking French influence and hostility towards it in Africa at a critical time for Paris.
In light of these considerations, in addition to the sensitivities surrounding France’s relations with Arab Maghreb countries, the Gulf region appears to be at the core of Paris’s calculations and choices to enhance its international position within global competition for dominance and influence.
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