On September 26, 2022, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis organized a panel discussion, entitled, "The Macron Doctrine: How can we understand France’s strategy for the Gulf?" featuring Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and Associate Research Fellow at the French Institute of International Relations. The goal of the panel was to evaluate France’s policy, as a middle power, toward the Gulf region during the presidency of Emmanuel Macron.
To start, the panel presented a historical background of the development of French policy in the Gulf region before and after the Second World War, characterized by the following:
1. Limited presence in the Gulf before World War II: The panel discussion tackled the importance of focusing on French policy for the Gulf region before World War II, pointing out that the French presence in the region was very limited, especially since France was not a major colonial power in the Gulf like the UK or Portugal. While France was a presence in Africa and the Levant, the Gulf region was primarily under the influence of the UK.
The French government’s national archives show that France opened a consulate in Muscat in 1795, and another in Jeddah in 1841. However, despite these diplomatic exchanges between France and the Gulf at that time, Paris did not play a crucial role in the context of colonial competition in the region. The Gulf was an important region for the British Empire because of its strategic location between the West and Asia.
2. Improved French-Arab relations during the de Gaulle era: France’s presence in the Gulf changed after World War II, especially after the collapse of the Fourth Republic (1946-1958), when Charles de Gaulle took power. He established what is still known as the "Charles de Gaulle" model for French foreign policy, given he is considered the most influential political figure in French history since the end of World War II. After his return to power in 1959, de Gaulle was convinced that his country needed to adopt its own policy, apart from the US and NATO.
de Gaulle adopted a policy of "non-alignment," in order to maintain a unique approach independent of the West without joining the then-Soviet bloc. Thus, de Gaulle decided to withdraw French forces from NATO’s military command in 1966, and, in the same year, he signed an agreement with the Soviet Union on scientific cooperation. There was a similar change in French policy toward the Middle East and the Arab region during this period.
3. Close ties with Arab states under Pompidou: France’s "Arab policy" phase started in the 1960s with de Gaulle, and continued after his death with the government of Georges Pompidou and Foreign Minister Michel Jobert, who played an important role in promoting diplomatic relations between France and the Arab states at the beginning of the 1970s. During this period, strategic relations were established between France and Arab countries like Libya and Iraq. In 1969, Pompidou supported the Libyan revolution led by Muammar Qaddafi and provided weapons to the Libyan regime the following year.
During the Pompidou era, France became Baghdad’s top Western partner after it promoted mutual cooperation in the military, trade, and nuclear fields. In light of the influence de Gaulle had on French foreign policy, the panel discussion stressed another influential factor in French policy toward the Gulf: the UK’s withdrawal from east of Suez in 1968, followed by its withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, and the founding of the United Arab Emirates in the same year.
4. Paris’s enhanced presence in the Gulf after the British departure: The withdrawal of British armed forces from Asia and the Gulf signaled a new strategic situation in the region. The first result was an increased American presence through Washington’s establishment of a naval base in Bahrain in 1971 and the establishment of the Central Command in 1983. The second result was France’s involvement in the international competition in the Gulf region, as it appears that French officials saw the British withdrawal as a geopolitical opportunity to strengthen its presence in the region.
5. France’s deepening Gulf relationship after the Mecca incident: This deepening is evidenced by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s visit to France in 1975, and the agreements signed between the two countries in the fields of energy, trade, culture, and defense. The most significant rapprochement during that period was between France and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially amid the incident that took place in the city of Mecca in November of 1979. It is impossible to understand the nature of the relationship between the two countries without studying this crisis.
Although the Saudi armed forces had strong ties with the US and the UK, which had helped educate and train Saudi soldiers since the 1950s, talks between the US and Saudi Arabia faltered when Riyadh asked for Washington’s help in stopping the terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque in 1979. Saudi Arabia then turned to France, which responded immediately by sending National Gendarmerie special forces and French military advisors to support Riyadh, even though the relationship between the two countries did not have strategic depth prior to 1979. This event helped strengthen French-Saudi relations in the 1980s.
The panel discussion confirmed that the influence of the Charles de Gaulle model on French policy toward the Gulf region remains widespread to this day. In this regard, they stressed that France’s political goals and determinants in the Gulf are as follows:
1. Extended partnership with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Doha: The expression "geopolitical triangle" must be used when discussing French-Gulf relations. In the language of French diplomacy, this expression refers to Paris’s political partners: namely, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. France does not have strong relationships with the other Gulf states—Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait—because they are seen as more inclined toward the British, as evidenced by, for example, the presence of British military advisors in Oman and the establishment of a new British naval base in Bahrain in 2018.
2. French presidents’ differing views on the "geopolitical triangle" countries: This "geopolitical triangle" has not changed since the establishment of France’s regional policy in the 1970s, although there have been differences among French presidents on the relative importance of each country. For example, former French President Nikolai Sarkozy focused on strengthening relations with Qatar and using his personal relationship with former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a policy that led to increased Qatari investments in France, most notably Qatar’s investment in the Paris-Saint Germain Football Club in 2011.
The results of French rapprochement with Qatar since Sarkozy’s era are seen to this day in Qatar’s economic presence in Paris. Meanwhile, former President François Hollande focused primarily on improving relations with Riyadh, which had weakened since the death of the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz in 2011. Macron’s presidency is revealing different priorities, as it seems clear that the center of gravity for French policy in the Gulf today is the relationship between France and the UAE.
3. Military, economic, and cultural dimensions: France’s Gulf policy is based on three dimensions: military, economic, and cultural. Militarily, French forces are present in the region, specifically in the UAE, which has hosted 650 French soldiers since the opening of a French military base in Zayed Port in 2009. Likewise, about 70 French soldiers are stationed in Qatar and 50 in Saudi Arabia. The French military presence is small compared to the US, which has about 40,000 troops in the Gulf today.
France is a leading arms exporter to the region. For example, France sold frigates to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and Rafale combat aircraft to Qatar in 2017 and the UAE in 2021. There is an economic dimension to France’s policy toward the region, and its importance has emerged since the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February 2022, with Macron hoping to use the Gulf states to replace the energy supplies it used to obtain from Russia.
The cultural dimension of France’s Gulf policy does not appear in the American or British policy, which manifested in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, the French Agency for AlUla Development in Saudi Arabia, and the National Museum of Qatar designed by the French architect, Jean Nouvel.
4. Positions consistent with the Gulf states toward the Middle East: The most important reason for the rapprochement between France and the Gulf was the similarity of their shared political views on fundamental issues in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran’s policy in the region. France plays a significant role in the international talks on Iran’s nuclear program, and most of the official texts of France’s foreign policy refer to Paris’s priority on Gulf security.
France and the Gulf states—particularly the UAE—have similar policies on regional issues. The common denominator in all these issues has been counterterrorism, as evidenced by French and Emirati support for Egypt since 2013, as well as in Libya, Syria, and the Sahel region of Africa. The French military launched Operation Barkhane in 2014, after which Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced financial assistance for the Sahel countries in support of the French initiative to stabilize this region.
The panel stressed that France’s global policy in general, and its policies toward the Gulf in particular, face the following challenges:
1. France’s preoccupation with tracking the developments of the Ukrainian war: The clear priority of current French policy is not the deepening of relations with the Gulf states, but rather the developments of the war in Ukraine and how to resolve it. Since the beginning of the Russian military incursion into Ukraine, the Ukrainian issue has become the primary focus of French policy. Indeed, some believe that it has become the only focus. According to the panel, in the opinion of French officials, this conflict has led to several geopolitical shifts, most importantly the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia by the EU, the arming of Ukrainian forces, and NATO’s attempt to strengthen European security.
The Ukrainian war is increasing the pressure on the French military budget, similar to most European countries. In light of Paris’s focus on events at Europe’s eastern front, it is natural that Middle Eastern issues are taking a back seat in Paris. The war is having a noticeable effect on French policy toward the Gulf via the energy crisis that is threatening Europe as a result of the conflict with Russia. This comes amid France’s preoccupations with developments in Mali that prompted the French army to withdraw from there.
2. Impact of domestic balancing on foreign policy: The French president has also been facing difficulties at home since the parliamentary elections last June. Although Macron won the presidential election last May, his party, La République En Marche!, lost the parliamentary elections and does not have the parliamentary majority required to pass his agenda. Meanwhile, his main opposition in parliament, the party of Marine Le Pen, has 88 seats in the chamber.
There is also a strong extreme left-wing presence represented by La France Insoumise, with 75 seats. Despite the lack of clear results shaking up the French domestic scene and Macron’s policy toward the Gulf, the lack of a parliamentary majority for his party means that he must continually negotiate with the opposition and make concessions in order to pass his policies on foreign issues, chief among them Paris’s policy toward the Gulf region.
3. Limitations of France’s role because it is a middle power: French decision-makers are aware that there are limits to Paris’s power and ability to influence the world. Despite France’s ongoing positive approach to the Gulf region since the de Gaulle era, France’s ambition as a middle power—whereby Paris lacks the military and economic capabilities of the US and China, and has seen a decline in its capabilities compared to the de Gaulle era—places restrictions on its foreign policy in general, and its approach to the Gulf region in particular.
Finally, some participants emphasized that what happened in 2021, after the launch of the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the UK, and the US—when Australia canceled its contract to purchase French submarines after it acquired nuclear submarines—is evidence of France’s currently limited capabilities. Some participants stressed that this diplomatic crisis was a major disaster for France and a realistic reflection of Paris’s international ambitions.