January 27, 2022

IntelBrief: Abu Dhabi and Paris Aligned on Regional Security in the Persian Gulf

AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Bottom Line up Front

  • Uncertain about the U.S commitment to secure the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is looking to France and others to help fulfill its security requirements.
  • The UAE and other Gulf states likely see France as leverage to secure additional U.S support, rather than an as a possible replacement for the U.S. security umbrella.
  • France and the UAE are aligned on policy toward major regional issues, including Iran, the Libya conflict, and Lebanese Hezbollah’s expanding political influence.
  • By finalizing a major order for French-made combat aircraft, the UAE helped France express its deep displeasure with the United States over the cancellation of the sale of French-made submarines to Australia.

France and the UAE are quietly but steadily expanding their security ties, based on shared regional interests and UAE leadership’s questioning of the durability of the U.S. commitment to Gulf security. Yet, no outside power has the long history of the United States in providing a security umbrella to the Gulf states. It is likely that the UAE and other Gulf states are building security ties to France, as well as to Russia and China, to compel the United States to reaffirm its Gulf security commitments. No Gulf state leader, by any account, sees a replacement for the United States as the leading global power in the Gulf.

France-UAE security relations have been expanding for several decades, but have accelerated as both countries—as well as their mutual ally, the United States—have sought to counter a growing threat from Iran, as well as from global terrorist organizations operating in the region. France and the UAE signed a 1995 defense pact under which their armed forces chiefs meet regularly, and they conduct two dozen joint drills per year. In the 1980s, France supplied the country with the Mirage 2000 jets that it relied on prior to buying U.S.-made F-16s in 1998. Since 2008, French air force personnel have operated out of a portion of the sprawling Al Dhafra airbase, which is the largest staging facility that U.S. and U.S.-led coalition forces use in the Emirates, including for strikes against the Islamic State organization. France evacuated some Afghans and third-country nationals through their facility at Al Dhafra after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. In 2009, France added a naval component to its UAE presence, and then-President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated the consolidated air and naval French military enclave in the country as Camp de la Paix (Peace Camp). The facility became France's first new overseas base since the end of the colonial era and hosts about 500 French military personnel.

The latest sign of deepening ties came during an early December visit by President Emmanuel Macron to the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, during which the UAE finalized a deal under discussion for more than a decade to buy 80 advanced French-made Rafale combat aircraft. The French Defense Ministry said the deal is worth $19 billion and represents the largest-ever French weapons contract for export. A deal was also announced to sell the UAE 12 Airbus-built combat helicopters. The deals boosted the French defense industry and France’s Gulf security profile, as well as, to some extent, compensated for the collapse of a $66 billion contract for Australia to buy 12 French submarines that ultimately went to the United States. That deal caused a U.S.-France rift, including the unprecedented recall of France’s Ambassador in Washington for several weeks. The Rafale deal also raised questions about whether a U.S deal to sell the UAE the sophisticated F-35 fighter aircraft would be completed, amid UAE complaints about the United States conditioning the sale on limitations to UAE ties to China.

France is a natural security partner for the UAE. Unlike Russia and China, France is a close U.S. ally whose presence in the UAE supports, rather than challenges, U.S. policy in the region. UAE-France security ties do not risk violating U.S. sanctions laws. The United States, France, and the UAE all seek to ensure that Iran cannot ever develop a nuclear weapon, although the UAE often argues for the United States and its partners to confront Tehran’s regional influence more forcefully. France and the United States are cooperating extensively against global jihadist organizations in West Africa, where France has a broad network of intelligence and military assets and allies. The UAE and France have generally, and despite some international criticism, taken the same side in Libya by backing the eastern Libya-based strongman Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s tactics are inimical to France’s democratic values but backing him has been broadly consistent with France’s alliances with authoritarian leaders in other parts of Africa to secure the Sahel. Yet, France has also worked to reconcile Haftar with the U.N.-backed government based in Tripoli, and Paris hopes that the Libyan presidential elections, although postponed from the original December 24 date, will ultimately help stabilize the country.

France, the UAE, and key UAE partner Saudi Arabia are also aligned in opposing the expanded political influence of Iran’s key ally, Lebanese Hezbollah, in Lebanon—a former French protectorate. On January 11, France’s foreign minister Yves Le Drian announced that the UAE would join a Saudi-French fund intended to provide support to the Lebanese people and presumably weaken Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon’s politics and economy. He condemned efforts led by Iran-backed Hezbollah to prevent cabinet meetings and remove political blockages surrounding an investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion, while at the same time urging Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other Gulf states not to isolate Lebanon outright. Whereas France-UAE security ties built on shared regional interests will continue to expand, UAE leaders undoubtedly are aware of the limitations of France’s military capabilities, including in airlift, sealift, missile defense technology, armed drone capabilities, electronic intelligence gathering technology, and combat experience. No expert or UAE leader assesses that the U.S. security umbrella for the Gulf could be permanently replaced by France or any other aspiring power.