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FRANCE/UAE: Gulf base shows shift in France’s focus

by Ben Hall and Andrew EnglandFinancial Times
May 25th, 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, will on Tuesday open a French naval base in Abu Dhabi, underlining his country’s renewed strategic interests in the Persian Gulf amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The new installation in the United Arab Emirates, which will support French naval operations in the Gulf and Indian ocean, is France’s first overseas military base in 50 years.

Mr Sarkozy is also expected to use his visit to Abu Dhabi, beginning on Monday, to lobby on behalf of French companies, including Dassault, the military aircraft maker, and a consortium of Total, GdF-Suez and Areva, which is bidding to build two nuclear power stations in the UAE.

Dassault is hoping to clinch a deal to sell as many as 60 of its Rafale fighters to the UAE, in what would be the first international order for its latest military jet.

France’s new base is less important in military than in diplomatic terms. It will house at most 500 people. This number includes personnel supporting a detachment of three Mirage and Rafale jet fighters at the al-Dhafra air base in the emirate and another unit at a desert training camp.

The naval installation will make it easier to supply French ships in the region, but it will not supplant France’s larger base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Neither is the base intended as a signal of military intent against Iran, say Elysée palace officials, insisting France wants a peaceful solution to the stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

But France’s military presence in Abu Dhabi is intended to drive home its tough stance against Iran’s nuclear plans. In a forthcoming interview with Diplomatie magazine, Mr Sarkozy said it underlined France’s wish “to participate fully in the stability of this region that is essential for the world’s equilibrium”.

The new base also represents a shift in French strategic interests away from protecting its former African colonies towards the conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where French security is considered more at threat.

France’s arrival breaks the US monopoly on western military powers having a permanent presence in the the Gulf, analysts say.

“From the Abu Dhabi side, they have the full commitment from another western power to the security of this region and also there’s no more monopoly from one side for security in the region, and definitely they will look for more contribution from the French in terms of transfer of technology and industrial and economic programmes together,” said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

Mr Sarkozy is looking to extend commercial ties with the UAE and is likely to discuss the possibility of one of the country’s sovereign wealth or investment funds taking a stake in Areva, the state-owned nuclear group. But the Elysée said no decision on this was likely until the winner of the UAE’s nuclear competition was decided in September.

Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest of the seven city states that make up the UAE and home to about 95 per cent of its hydrocarbons resources. The emirate is going through a programme of huge development and boasts a big stable of sovereign investments vehicles.

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