Even though the recent meeting between the US and French presidents on the side-lines of G-20 meeting was said to have ‘restored’ the French-US ties after the AUKUS shock, some recent developments have clearly established that the cleavages caused by the AUKUS are too deep for a single meeting to bridge. In fact, the outcome of that meeting, which has begun to become obvious only now, has been anything but a restoration of the broken ties. The French president Macron’s recent visit to Middle East, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, show how France is actively – and deliberately – seeking to expand its military footprint in a region that was, until recently, a largely US territory. More importantly, it is expanding its influence in ways that counter-acts the US more directly than meets the eye. The French defense deal with the UAE and his visit to Saudia Arabia – which happened to be the first visit by any western official since the controversy implicating Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) erupted around the brutal murder of a Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – come at a time when the UAE-US ties are under a lot of strain due to the Biden administration’s reluctance over finalising the F-35 deal, and when the US-Saudia ties have already reached a new low due to the Biden administration’s active attempts at what many Saudis consider framing MBS as directly responsible for the murder of Jamal in Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In his meeting with the UAE leaders, the French president struck a lucrative US$19 billion dollar deal that would allow the UAE to buy 80 Rafael jets and 12 military helicopters. While this deal is likely to keep the French military industrial complex running for a while, it is also meant to serve as a gateway for the French industry to exploit a market that its undergoing a rapid shift in the wake of the US withdrawal and/or military disengagement from the Middle East, pushing the Gulf-Arab powers to pay more attention to buttressing their defences. So, if the AUKUS was a “stab in the back”, France’s defence deal with the UAE appears to have capitalised on the growing Emirati impatience over the US recalcitrance over supplying the F-35s.
The presence of both French and Emirati leaders on the signing ceremony of the deal not only underscores the significance attached to the deal, but also illustrates the context against which it has been finalised.
As it stands, whereas the Biden administration has been reluctant to finalise the deal over the UAE’s questionable role in the Yemen war, the French, despite facing the same allegations over its own military supplies to the UAE in the past one decade, have still finalised the deal. But for the on-going tussle between the UAE and the US, the UAE would have either continued to express doubts, as it did in 2011, over Rafael’s air-superiority and ability, or it would have been able to secure the F-35s. Similarly, but for the friction between the US and France, France would not have tapped into the existing friction between the US and the UAE to make a lucrative deal that would create 7,000 jobs and also keep the business running for the next decade.
But France would not have been able to make this deal unless the UAE saw potential benefits in it. For one thing, a reliance on Rafael jets allowsdirectly the UAE to bypass any potential sanctions that US may impose in future if the US-UAE ties undergo further deterioration. Secondly, while the UAE has been looking to buy the F-35s since the finalisation of the Abraham Accords, a possession of these jets does not give Abu Dhabi a complete control of their usage. The Americans have been putting restrictions over Abu Dhabi. In other words, even after paying a hefty amount for only a modest version of the actual F-35, Washington will still retain control of its jets. The French, however, have been clever enough to exclude any usage-related restrictions to make an offer to Abu Dhabi that it could not refuse.
The French deal, in simple words, has allowed the UAE to break the limbo that the Biden administration had imposed on the UAE. As some reports have indicated, the US had been pressurising Abu Dhabi to break its ties with China in exchange for the F-35s. The UAE’s refusal to do that is the underlying reason for the Biden administration’s decision to ‘review’ the deal. However, the French deal has directly defeated the US pressure tactics, allowing the UAE to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the US in regional geo-politics by diversifying its sources.
The geo-political impact of this deal is not much different from the impact that Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia has left on the isolation that Riyadh had been facing ever since the CIA report that implicated MBS in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Macron’s visit, in simple words, is being seen as a critical breakthrough that Riyadh had been waiting to overcome its isolation.
Very much like Macron’s personal presence on the singing of the deal, pictures of him being received by MBS have a powerful symbolism attached to them – a clear contrast to the fact that Joe Biden is yet to speak to MBS, who is Saudia’s de facto ruler. Like his deal with the UAE, Macron’s meeting with MBS has also undone the pressure Washington had been building on MBS. At least 27 different agreements and MoU were signed during the visit. As far as Yemen is concerned, the French extended full support to Saudia’s “peace initiative”, thus potentially counter-acting the pressure that the US had been building on the Kingdom to end the war in Yemen.
These two visits have helped France establish itself as a power in the Middle East that can not only act as an alternative to the US, but also help the Gulf-Arab states overcome the challenges they happen to be facing at the moment, with France’s well-established defense industry also willing to fill the gap that the US withdrawal from the Middle East is creating.
The clearly anti-US posture that the French adopted during these visits also reveals that the wedge caused by AUKUS is too wide to be quickly bridged. As a matter of fact, it has already put the Transatlantic Alliance on the path to its ultimate degeneration and eventual disintegration. France’s success in the Middle East will only embolden Macron’s resolve to establish Europe as an autonomous player in the world, further allowing him to push for a European defense forces as an alternative to NATO and/or reliance on the US for the continent’s defense.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.