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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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