This story first caught my eye because I thought I had misunderstood it-France opening a base in Abu Dhabi (part of the United Arab Emirates) in May this year.
That France is opening new overseas bases is by itself an oddity, not only in light of the country's limited military establishment (just under 260,000 regulars), and in particular, its limited power-projection capabilities, but also its policy ever since decolonization began in earnest in the wake of the Second World War. As noted in recent press reports, the new facility is the country's "first permanent overseas military installations outside its former colonies in Africa in fifty years," and "the first time that France has installed a military operation in a country where it has never been colonial master."
Why a French base, in this region, now?
There has been talk of "safeguarding the sea lanes" and "supporting allies," commonplaces that are awfully abstract when left at that. (Safeguard the sea lanes from what? Support which allies--against whom?)
There has been mention of the base supporting operations to combat piracy, but the truth is that the base is a thousand miles east of the "hot spot" off East Africa, and a rather longer sail than that around the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, in the wrong direction from the French homeland from a logistical standpoint. (Indeed, the bigger base France already has in Djibouti, which is already playing a role in facilitating an anti-piracy operation that does not seem about to drastically expand, makes such a facility in the UAE appear all the more insignificant to such an effort.)
The base would hardly be more useful to France's ongoing peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, for much the same reason. The support of French operations in Afghanistan would seem to be a more plausible purpose, but oddly enough this was not mentioned in the press reports I saw.
The New York Times cites unnamed analysts identifying the UAE's grant of a base to France as an "insurance policy" as the U.S. presence in Iraq winds down.
Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai who has been widely quoted on this matter, has pointed to the significance of the base being in its "breaking the United States' long monopoly to the Gulf region"--concerns apparently connected to worry in the UAE about the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program dragging the country into war, as well as the broader power politics of the region--and the greater political "acceptability" of France in the region (in comparison with the U.S. and Britain).
Yet, both those views seem inconsistent with the practical limits of French military capability in a heavily armed region like the Gulf (in contrast, for instance, with places like Rwanda, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic), constraining its capacity to both provide insurance, and (especially in light of the tendency to exaggerate the Trans-Atlantic rift) some counterweight to the U.S. as some seem to hope.
Even in the 1980s France's confrontation with Libya over Chad put it in a very difficult position, despite its possession then of a rather more extensive array of military assets than it has today. Realistically, France can only participate in a major regional military action as a supporting player in a U.S.-led operation (something the base would of course assist in, and can reasonably be taken as a preparation for), or as part of the long envisaged but yet to be realized European force. Indeed, France's recent return to the NATO command structure from which Charles De Gaulle withdrew the country in the 1960s seemed to be an acknowledgment of such realities. (Of course, one could spin out a scenario in which the French base functions as a trip wire in the event of a confrontation between the UAE and Iran, with France's nuclear arsenal playing a deterrent function. This strikes me as wildly implausible techno-thriller stuff, but there's never a shortage of analysts eager to think in such terms.)
This leaves it more a matter of appearances and vague notions of "influence," instead of push-comes-to-shove realities. Examining the situation that way, the purpose of such ties seems to be to encourage sales of French arms (the French government is said to be pushing a multi-billion dollar arms sale to the UAE, perhaps all the more important given the trouble it has had scoring buyers for the Rafale) and French nuclear technology (the UAE is looking to build two plants, an area where the French, of course, also hope to do business-perhaps $40 billion worth of it in that deal) in the country and the region more broadly. The token military presence's bolstering of France's image as an independent regional actor can only help such dealmaking.
It could also be for the benefit of observers from outside the region, including domestic opinion in France itself, where the closer relationship to NATO is far from universally popular, inviting protest not only from the left (as in the Strasbourg protests), but from the Gaullist right as well. Yet, not everyone is mollified by this apparent concession to national sovereignty (and even grandeur), "centrist" politician Francois Bayrou notably criticizing the facility for the risk of entanglement in overseas conflict it introduces into France's strategic situation.
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