Macron’s Middle East strategy: honest broker, corporate CEO or a regime ally

Wednesday 15 December 202103:02 pm
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إستراتيجية ماكرون في الشرق الأوسط... "وسيط نزيه" أو "رئيس شركة" أم "حليف الأنظمة"

France’s interest in the Middle East has always been defined by security interests, and by commercial, cultural and social exchanges. But under President Emmanuel Macron, its foreign policy has garnered more influence, and has gone beyond its traditional activity in North Africa to a clear and blatant intervention in the Arab Gulf region.

Historically, the links between France and the Middle East have been intimate and intricately intertwined. The Arab world has a strong presence in France, and France influences the Arab world. There are about six million people in France who are either immigrants or children of immigrants from the region, and they have a strong relationship with the countries of the region. Islam is the second religion in France.

France sent its forces to fight ISIS in Syria, engaged in the Libyan conflict, increased cooperation with Egypt and the UAE in the fight against Islamist groups, and got into a dispute with Erdogan, in dread of Ankara’s ambitions in the region.

France’s policy in the region is structured around three pillars: a human rights discourse, that legitimized French intervention in Libya. a national security priority such as fighting radical Islam, terrorism and illegal migration and economic interests

The trade of French goods with the region stands reached of 20% of exports, ahead of China and nearly as much as that of the United States (excluding military trade). France relies on the region for a third of its imports and half of its arms sales.

Honest broker

With Macron in power in 2017, a number of his close advisors, including Hakim El Karoui, set out to propose a new strategy for France, based on playing the role of an ‘honest broker’ or mediator in the issues of the region, in line with political realism.

The new strategy was later outlined by accepting Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate president of Syria and direct dealing with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, despite all the question marks that were raised following the murder of Khashoggi, as well as the French President’s intervention in the crisis that saw the then Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, being detained in Riyadh.

Karoui pointed out that France’s policy in the region is structured around three pillars. First, a human rights discourse, upon which France legalized its intervention in Libya, and sided with the opposition in Syria. Second, a security-based reasoning that insists on the priority to combat radical Islam, terrorism and illegal immigration. Third, an economic interests strategy.

As a stabilizing force, France must reclaim its position as a mediating power, an ‘honest broker’, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Algeria and Morocco, and the Israelis and Palestinians. This is key to credibility

Karoui wrote in a 2017 report, “As a stabilizing force, France must regain its position as a mediating power, an ‘honest broker’, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Algerians and Moroccans, and the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is the key to our credibility and plausibility.”

Macron worked on turning France into an “honest mediator” when it came to the region’s crises. For instance, when he intervened in the port explosion crisis in Lebanon, he did not raise any criticism of Hezbollah in the country, although this put him in the crosshairs of the Lebanese people who had revolted against the political system.

In another example, the French president called his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, on November 30, 2021, before he embarked on his Gulf tour - which included Saudi Arabia - in the second such call since the hard-line cleric took office.

And on December 4th of this year, Macron himself wrote on Facebook in Arabic, “France’s historic role (in the region) is to reach a balance, find channels for dialogue, and contribute to building peace and stability. We cannot succeed unless we involve all the active parties that can make a difference.”

He did not indicate that he had raised the human rights situation during his Gulf tour, and in previous meetings he refused to link arms sales to human rights.

Last August, the French president worked on holding a regional summit in Iraq to guarantee the “sovereignty of Iraq”, without any indication or reference to Iran. He attended the summit in person, and then visited Mosul, which was one of the strongholds of ISIS.

Iraq signed a contract with the French group “TotalEnergies” worth $27 billion, in a move that had observers saying Macron’s “current actions indicate that his commercial concerns made him act like the CEO of Total

In a clear demonstration of the mutual interests, Iraq signed a $27 billion contract with the French oil company TotalEnergies in order to invest in gas and oil and utilize solar energy, in a move that observers said came as a reward to the French President following his latest visit to Baghdad. Meanwhile, others saw that “his current actions indicate that his commercial concerns made him act like the president of the Total company.”

Bilad al-Sham

Under Macron’s watch, France’s foreign policy in the Middle East underwent a remarkable transformation, revealing a clear break from Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, moving towards a realistic policy. On December 2nd, the French President issued a presidential decree appointing the French Foreign Affairs Advisor, Brigitte Curmi, as ambassador for Syria.

Speaking to Raseef22, Tawfiq Koueider Chichi, a political analyst based in France, said that, “French policy in Syria is an example of the transition to realism, and failing its previous goals to topple the regime, as well as pushing all parties towards a political solution at the present time.”

In the words of Emmanuel Macron on April 14, 2018, the French strategy regarding Syria showed that his country’s priorities in Syria will remain firm and unchanging: “Fighting against ISIS, enabling humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, unleashing a collective momentum to reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict so that peace returns to Syria, and ensuring the stability of the region.”

Koueider pointed out that “the appointment of a French ambassador to Syria came in conjunction with Macron’s Gulf tour,” noting “the possibility of a coordinated effort over Damascus with the UAE, which is currently working to restore the Syrian regime to the political scene, and this decision confirms that Paris is moving forward with this political solution, dropping the idea of ​​changing the regime, and not setting any red lines except for the use of chemical weapons.”

Paris sent troops to Syria - a country that was formerly colonized by France - to ​​fight ISIS along the border with Iraq. When the United States announced the withdrawal of a number of its forces from Syria in 2019, France - with about two hundred special forces units - found itself to be the largest remaining Western force with a military presence in that country.

The French influence in Lebanon, which even preceded the mandate, is still strong due to close relations with the Maronites. It also presents itself as the sole protector of the Hariri ‘clan’, and that it parallels the Saudi influence

Even in Lebanon, Koueider said, “The French influence in the country, which preceded the mandate, is still strong due to the close relations with the Eastern Catholic Maronites there, presenting itself as the sole protector of the Hariri ‘clan’. It also parallels the Saudi influence there and wants to present itself as a mediator between all sides.”

The French president visited the Lebanese capital twice after the massive explosion that rocked the port of Beirut. He also hosted an international conference to help the country and raised $370 million.

Temptations in the Gulf

Gulf researchers Giorgio Cafiero and Antonino Occhiuto, in a report at the Gulf International Forum, noted that “Britain, which had enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council on account of its membership in the European Union, left the EU, which encouraged France to take its place in the Union and assume a leading role when it comes to the foreign policies of the European Union.”

The two researchers also pointed out that France found in the Gulf “an ally country with vast financial resources that agrees with it on all issues; the Emirates, which adopted a unified vision with Paris regarding Islamist groups, the danger of the advance of Turkey regionally, the situation in Libya, the Sahel region and the eastern Mediterranean, and the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.”

In the Sahel region, Abu Dhabi is a major financial backer of France’s initiative to bolster the military forces of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in their war against jihadi terrorism. Paris and Abu Dhabi conducted joint military exercises with Greece to deter the policy of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

The UAE is home to the only French military base in the Gulf, “Camp de la Paix - IMFEAU” (or ‘Peace Camp’) in Abu Dhabi, which was inaugurated by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. The military facility consists of a naval base, an air base, and a land base. It employs about 250 people, and is the first military base that France established outside its national territory in 50 years.

Early this month, France signed the largest arms deal in its history. During Macron’s visit to the UAE, he concluded a contract to sell 80 Dassault Rafale fighter jets worth 18 billion dollars. This ‘historic’ deal is expected to revive the arms industry in France, especially ahead of its upcoming April presidential elections, according to Koueider.

Relations between Doha and Paris are entirely determined by the defense relations between the two countries. In 1994, they signed a defense agreement. By 2009, nearly 80% of Qatar’s military equipment was French

As for Qatar, relations between Doha and Paris are entirely determined by the defense relations between the two countries. In 1994, they signed a defense agreement. By 2009, nearly 80% of Qatari military equipment was from France. In addition, France provides military training to Qatar’s special forces.

In May 2015, former French President François Hollande and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani signed an agreement to purchase 24 Dassault Rafale fighter jets for Qatar. In March 2018, Qatar purchased 12 more combat aircrafts of the same model.

Also during Macron’s reign, the two countries signed an agreement in February 2019 to enhance cooperation on security and economic issues, especially securing the World Cup in 2022. This comes in addition to cooperation in combating the financing of extremist groups and the crisis in Afghanistan.

As for Saudi Arabia, Macron became the first Western leader to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this month, following a wide boycott over the killing of Khashoggi.

France is considered one of the largest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, after the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and France signed several deals worth $12 billion, including 23 Airbus H145 helicopters valued at $500 million.

France deployed a “Jaguar Task Force” and an advanced radar system on the eastern coast of the kingdom in January 2020, in order to support Riyadh’s air and missile defenses.

However, it is highly unlikely that France will be able to replace the United States, according to Kouider, who said that “Paris is a middle power with a policy based on filling the gaps left by Washington. It does not possess the resources and capabilities that would enable it to play the same role.”

For instance, France was not able to intervene in Syria by itself, nor was it able to bring stability to Libya, even though it was a country that contributed to its destabilization, and called for help in the Sahel region.

Alliances with oppressive regimes

Macron’s policy in the Middle East does not seem to be concerned with the people or the human rights situation there. On the contrary, he raised the ire of the Lebanese, and ignored the Khashoggi crisis and the Yemen war.

More recently, Macron made comments that outraged a large segment of Middle Eastern muslims and created an aura of resentment within the public opinion.

As a result, widespread calls to boycott France spread over the internet and led to about fifty major markets in Kuwait to remove all French products from their shelves.

With his rise to power in 2017, French president Macron was not supporting the spread democracy in the region, he even criticized the intrusive promotion of democracy by his predecessors

This policy contradicts the positions taken by former French President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), who opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and clashed with the George Bush administration. He had strong positions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and his policies earned him a good reputation and credibility with Arab regimes, nations and their peoples.

With his rise to power in 2017, the French president was not inclined towards spreading democracy. He even criticized the intrusive promotion of democracy by his predecessors, and said in June 2017, “With me it will be the end of this sort of neo-conservatism that has been imported to France over the last 10 years.”

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