Is Emmanuel Macron trying to position France as the primary mediator for all the states in the Gulf?

Donald Trump’s foreign policy has aligned the US more closely with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states against Iran.

Despite reluctantly recertifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) this month, Trump is threatening to withdraw the US from the accord in May. France—like all other European capitals—is not on the same page as the Trump administration regarding the Iran deal. Like the rest of Europe, France, a close US ally and fellow signatory of the nuclear deal, sees the JCPOA as vital to international security and has warned the US not to walk away from the deal.

The French thinking is that it is best to have the nuclear standoff between the West and Iran fully resolved, and then address other issues while building on the JCPOA as a foundation for growing trust. A contrasting view held by American hawks on Iran is that such non-nuclear issues have worsened precisely because of the sanctions lifted on Iran after the JCPOA’s implementation. Thus, according to this argument, it is most prudent to link the accord to these non-nuclear issues as a means of pressuring Tehran to change its conduct.

Unquestionably, France has its own economic interests in the JCPOA’s survivability. Last year, France’s energy giant, Total, was the first Western energy company to sign a deal with Iran since the JCPOA’s implementation. Under the $5 billion agreement, also signed with a Chinese oil company, Total will develop a portion of the South Pars gas field. Other French firms are also eyeing opportunities to one day capitalise on Iran’s potential.

Nonetheless, Paris’ approach to the nuclear deal is indicative of a grander agenda that France has in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East. Put simply, France is seeking to position itself as an indispensable mediator for all states in the Gulf, including Iran, as well as a bridge between Iran on one side and the US and Israel on the other. 

Unquestionably, carefully striking good relations with Riyadh and Tehran without upsetting such a delicate balance is a major challenge for President Macron’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

Simultaneously, since the Qatar crisis erupted on June 5, 2017, France has maintained close relations with all parties on both sides of the rift and Macron has been the European head-of-state most involved in mediation between Doha and the Anti-Terror Quartet: Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Rather than taking sides in the Gulf dispute, France has stepped up arms sales to both Doha and Abu Dhabi, while backing the Kuwaiti emir’s efforts to mediate a settlement to the GCC’s diplomatic row since the crisis’ beginning. As highlighted by President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s visit to France last year, Paris is also keen on deepening its ties with Cairo.

In 2009, France established its first military base (“Peace Camp”) in the UAE, France’s first ever base on foreign soil outside of Africa. The move demonstrated France’s determination to compete with both the US and UK for influence in the region. 

In 2015, France signed an agreement to supply the LAF with $3bn in arms paid for by the Saudis, although the deal was later canceled. That same year France sold Qatar Rafale fighter jets in a $7 billion deal right after another jet agreement with Egypt that Abu Dhabi largely facilitated. France regards the UAE as a “trusted partner” in its staunch fight against terrorism. As illustrated by last year’s opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the two countries have a deep relationship in cultural domains too.

Bridging the Gulf

In the larger geopolitical equation, France is joining a host of other countries, including China, Russia, Turkey, and the UK, which are seeking to fill a void in the Persian Gulf’s geopolitical order created by the US’ relative decline in influence. In doing so, France is seeking to promote stability in the Persian Gulf by pushing for a detente in Saudi-Iran relations and a resolution of the Qatar crisis.

Can France successfully insert itself into the Persian Gulf’s geopolitical order and gain greater clout in the region? In attempting to do so, France will face challenges stemming from historical baggage as a former colonial power in the Arab world and perceptions of Paris not being truly “neutral” as Macron seeks to portray his country. 

Paris’ support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war is not forgotten in Iran, where there remains skepticism about France being an impartial broker given its close alignment with Washington and London and alliance with Israel and close ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It is also questionable how France’s highly lucrative arms deals with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi can help further the cause of conflict resolution in Yemen when there is a consensus that Western states supplying Saudi Arabia and the UAE with arms are, to a significant extent, sharing responsibility for the Yemen war and the protracted humanitarian crisis.

Within France there are critics of Macron who contend that Paris’ deepening diplomatic involvement in multifaceted Persian Gulf crises and diplomatic rows will probably not serve France’s long-term interests. Another domestic variable that Macron, who speaks of French foreign policy promoting democracy abroad, must contend with are human rights organizations opposed to Paris selling arms and deepening political ties with certain regimes in the Arab world that Macron has embraced as president.

Nonetheless, despite the uncertainties of how successful Marcon will prove capable of playing his hand in the region and how France’s internal politics will respond to his ambitions for France in the Arab world, the young French president is determined to assert his country as a military power on a global scale and securing  influence in the Persian Gulf region for projecting French influence is vital to this strategy.

While in the past France was in a far weaker position to challenge the US’ dominant role in the Persian Gulf security environment, the Trump presidency and the decline of confidence in Washington as a security guarantor have pushed more GCC states toward the view that France is an alternative power with whom they can hedge their bets away from the US. 

Macron is set to capitalise on this geopolitical opportunity to assert France as an increasingly influential outside actor in the Persian Gulf.

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