Is France the new Diplomatic Power for the GCC?

May 13, 2015
Is France the new Diplomatic Power for the GCC?
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

The President of France’s recent visit to the Middle East, including attendance at a session of the GCC leaders, raises a number of questions about France’s intentions in the GCC region.  Francois Hollande was personally invited by Saudi Arabia to attend the GCC Summit, the first foreign leader to be given this privilege.  The motivation behind the invitation appears to be recognition from the GCC that France is a clear ally in supporting the efforts of the GCC states directed at fighting terrorism in the region. Furthermore, France is perceived as having a strong stance on the Iran nuclear deal, in contrast to other global powers, which appear to be supporting Iran.  At the same time, Hollande’s trip was clearly driven by economic considerations.  Hollande visited Qatar to seal an arms deal reportedly worth up to US$ 7 billion, and it appears a key part of the visit to Saudi Arabia was about setting up good relations for future arms deals there.

On top of the economic considerations, France is also seeking to develop its own position as a foreign policy leader in what appears to be a time of uncertainty regarding global powers and the Middle East and Gulf region. USA policy in the region is widely criticised for negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran which appears to give too many concessions to Iran.  The USA’s long-standing position on the Palestine question has also been a source of inconsistency in foreign policy in relation to the GCC states.  With regard to other world powers, the UK’s position on foreign policy in the region is pretty much stagnant as the country is caught up with its own domestic election results.  Russia’s position is enigmatic as Russia appears to be staunchly defending the Assad regime in Syria, but also has concerns about matters relating to oil and global security more generally which require some engagement with the GCC states.  In many respects it may appear to the GCC states there is no friend in the West dedicated to a foreign policy that clearly supports the overall objectives of the region.  This view is reinforced by the lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming Camp David Summit where President Obama was hoping to host the heads of state from the GCC, but it is unclear who is taking the meeting seriously.

Clearly Hollande’s visit is an opportunity for France to bolster its profile in the Gulf, diplomatically and economically.  But should the GCC states be enamoured with France’s desire to be engaged with the region?  Any response to this will of course depend on a range of factors and considerations.  France does not have the ability or resources to bring about change in any substantive fashion.  France lacks the resources needed to change the behaviour of parties in a way the USA can.  But the GCC states will be able to use France’s recent interest in the region as leverage in furthering relations between the GCC states and the USA.  This is a short term gain for the GCC states, but still an important position to pursue.

France’s current overtures in the Gulf are not new. It appears that much of France’s foreign policy in the region is about trying to compete against other powers and is not directed at any sort of substantive strategic considerations of working with the region.  While France may be able to take advantage of the lack of consistency by the USA, France’s own actions are far from consistent.   We can look back to the end of the 18th century when France invaded Egypt primarily for the purposes of frustrating the efforts of the British to develop their own position.  France’s campaign at the time also had a strong economic consideration as it was seeking to weaken Britain’s ability to trade with India.  The foreign policy at the time had little to do with the Middle East region itself.  In the 19th century France become more involved in the region through colonial control over Algeria and a military intervention in Lebanon and Syria against the Ottoman Empire.  These situations become straight forward colonial rule with the local populations clearly not benefitting.

In the post World War II era France’s foreign policy decisions in the region were far from consistent and on a number of occasions, misguided decisions were taken, damaging its image and relations with Arab states.   In the Suez Crisis there was a major mistake in foreign policy choices for both France and Britain and events then demonstrated that neither state was a major power, being able to influence change in the region.  France made extensive efforts to foster relations with Israel which did not help its position with the wider Arab region.  The brutal suppression that followed in Algeria further damaged France’s position as it targeted nationalist and Islamic opposition.

Beyond the Middle East region, France demonstrated what can only be described as inconsistency in international relations.  On the one hand, France was a key founding member of regional integration efforts in Europe such as today’s European Union.  On the other hand, by the late 1960s it refused to fully participate in NATO on the belief the organisation was being dominated by the USA and UK.  Such inconsistencies have continued into more recent events.  In the 2003 Iraq war, France was an outspoken opponent of USA policy, leading to a deterioration of the relationship between the two states.   France’s opposition, however, appeared in rhetoric only as there was little substantive action in response.  And within a few years France and the USA are allies in the military coalition dealing with Daesh, with a White House official quoted as saying,“France has emerged as one of America’s most activist and steady European partners on security issues outside Europe”.  This is significant because the legal arguments justifying the current action in Iraq are ambiguous at best and do not have any clear imprimatur from the UN.  France’s opposition to US action on Iraq in 2003 was based on the argument that any use of force needed a clear SC resolution for authorisation.  France has clearly changed its view on the necessity of legal authority for military action in the region.

Of course the problem of inconsistency in foreign policy is a charge that can be levelled at all of the major powers in their relations with the region.  GCC states are right to express their disquiet over the lack of consistency in US policy.  The GCC states are right to ask for commitments from the USA regarding their security in light of the Iran situation, but US action in the region is driven by multiple, complex factors, leaving the Gulf states wondering where they rate in terms of priorities.  Even if France is able to look the part in taking a resolute stand on Iran, in the end it will have minimal influence on the outcomes.  The USA and Germany are clearly the bigger players who will be able to determine the direction of the sanctions regime and further international responses to any infractions by Iran.

At the same time, if there are opportunities for France to further its position diplomatically and economically in the region, why not take advantage of current circumstances?  It makes sense for France to engage with the region as it bolsters its overall foreign policy image and the economic benefits that will result.  What the GCC states need to keep in mind is that France is not completely independent in the direction of its foreign policy actions.  As the EU’s common foreign and security policy develops, more and more matters will be decided at a collective European level with member states not being able to act in isolation.  More of a concern would be the domestic influences on foreign policy given France’s record of dealing with Muslims at home.  There is a certain degree of irony at play with the GCC states seeing France as a strong ally when its domestic policy and tolerance for Muslims within France is far from enlightened. Of course, the connections between domestic and foreign policy are never straight forward, but the domestic politics of France, along with its inconsistency in foreign policy, raises questions about the foundations for fostering strong relations with the GCC states.

France has worked well to move into strategic diplomatic gap and in the process get a good deal for its national economy.  Foreign policy generally is a capricious business.  Great powers like the USA have multiple influences and factors that pull and push in different ways over the formulation of domestic and foreign policies.  Individual states cannot expect that any major power’s policy will be directed solely at them and fully in their favour.  The GCC states need to recognise that an absence of clear and unquestioning support does not mean the lack of an ally or opposition.  It is the nature of foreign policy.  At the same time, however, the GCC states can use the current context to their advantage in order to obtain a range of commitments from the various outside powers.