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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 January 2008, 15:04 GMT
French make serious move into Gulf
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and President Sarkozy
Sheikh Khalifa and President Sarkozy: new closeness

President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone beyond France's traditional policy of selling arms to Gulf states by signing a deal with Abu Dhabi for a permanent French naval base.

This projects France into the complex politics of the Gulf, identifying it even more closely with Gulf Arab countries which have expressed concern about the future policies of Iran.

President Sarkozy appears willing to accept that this exposes France to the risks involved in such a sensitive area, highlighted by the confrontation between Iranian speedboats and US naval ships recently. There is also a dispute between Abu Dhabi and Iran over three small islands in the Strait of Hormuz. The president said the base was agreed at the request of the Emirates.

The French base agreement coincides with a major visit to the region by President Bush, during which he has criticised Iran.

France might be seen as aligning itself more openly with the US, which maintains its own large base in Bahrain for the Fifth Fleet and which has also been selling arms to Gulf countries. However, some might also welcome a French presence as an alternative to the American.


France is already playing an active role in trying to increase sanctions on Iran over its refusal to accept Security Council demands for a halt to uranium enrichment.

Exactly what use France makes of the base remains to be seen. It has in the past been wary of sending its warships into the Gulf.

Nuclear power stations

Another significant element of the deal is that France is lining up to construct two nuclear power reactors for Abu Dhabi. This indicates the interest that Gulf states are showing in nuclear power, despite their own oil and gas resources.

It mirrors the growth of nuclear power in Iran and of course the implications are the same, in that a capability in nuclear power could turn into a capacity for nuclear weapons at some stage.

France's ties

France has traditionally had a close relationship with Abu Dhabi. It has sold Mirage jet fighters and AMX-30 tanks to the Emirate and has had a defence agreement with it (mainly dealing with the support of arms contracts) since 1995.

This French success in Abu Dhabi (and Qatar) has for years irritated the British, who regarded themselves as the mentors of the rulers of the lower Gulf. The British formed them into the Trucial States before leaving the Gulf in 1971. The United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the largest, was established subsequently.

According to British sources, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has never got on well with the British for reasons British diplomats do not fully understand. However, his antipathy appears well-established.

This allowed the French to make the running and they have done so.

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