In a press conference on June 22nd, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Turkey’s role in supporting the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the conflict in Libya. He also criticised Russia’s growing entrenchment. Suspiciously however, Macron refused even to acknowledge the influence of the United Arab Emirates, in spite of its repeated breaches of the UN arms embargo in support of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
Both France and the UAE have supported the renegade general Haftar’s war in Libya, albeit for initially diverging reasons. While France perceived a potential Haftar victory as a route to a ‘stability’ that would guarantee its energy interests and counter extremism, the UAE was primarily concerned to prevent Libya’s democratic transition from succeeding, preferring authoritarian military rule.
Since the Spring of 2020, the Turkish-backed GNA has pushed Haftar back from western Libya, turning the tide of the battle. At the same time, communications between the UAE and France have intensified, particularly as both now perceive Turkey as their main regional threat.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed called Macron on May 17th, allegedly to discuss the coronavirus situation. “We discussed our growing strategic bilateral relationship and economic cooperation across sectors of mutual priority,” Bin Zayed tweeted.
Meanwhile Macron responded: “We will step up our cooperation to defeat the pandemic and its consequences, and to build the post-pandemic world.”
Yet the conversation was most likely prompted by fears that Haftar was losing. Given their staunch support for Haftar, who is now on the back foot, revising their strategy has become a key priority for the two countries.
On June 21st, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash spoke with the Secretary General of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They expressed concerns over Libya’s geostrategic coastal city of Sirte and their shared desire for the “priority of a comprehensive solution for Libyans.” Both countries are evidently reassessing their efforts to counter Turkey’s influence in regard to Sirte, which the GNA will inevitably seek to capture, and other parts of Libya.
The UAE has probably been influencing France’s policies in Libya ever since the Libyan revolution of 2011. At that time, France delivered arms to anti-Gaddafi rebels in Zintan, targeting its support in line with guidance from the UAE, which was aiming to contain factions which it perceived as political Islam factions.
France’s independent stance has weakened the EU’s foreign policy clout over Libya. Paris has vetoed EU calls to condemn Haftar, and has undermined the bloc’s stated desires to implement a ceasefire and impose an arms embargo. The split within the EU has benefitted Abu Dhabi and allowed it to continue its support for Haftar’s war efforts.
Both France and the UAE also oppose Ankara’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tensions soared after Ankara and the GNA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2019 granting Turkey permission to explore Tripoli’s shores for oil. France has interests in hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly near Cyprus. In its opposition to Turkey’s involvement and Turkey’s growing clout in the area, Paris has established a naval presence there to secure its interests.
The UAE has previously supported the proposed Euro-Mediterranean pipeline from Israel, which clashes with Turkey’s policies. Meanwhile, the state-owned Dubai Ports World has eyed up expansion in Benghazi in eastern Libya, to bolster its global maritime trade.
On May 12th, the UAE and France both criticised Turkey’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, along with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Opposition to Turkey and a desire to secure their own economic interests has evidently brought Abu Dhabi and Paris closer together.
Apart from their staunch opposition to Turkey, Yemen is another case of Emirati-French alignment for economic purposes. Although France supported the Riyadh Agreement to unite the government of Yemen and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, which hindered the UAE’s geopolitical objectives, French-supplied weapons have directly been used in Abu Dhabi’s campaign in Yemen as it seeks influence over the country’s southern ports.
In June 2018, during the UAE-backed assault on Houthi rebels controlling the governorate of Hodeida in eastern Yemen, the French newspaper Le Figaro and a French member of Parliament confirmed that French special forces were operating alongside the Emirati military in south Yemen.
France claims to be supporting the UAE’s self-proclaimed ‘fight against extremism’ in Yemen, but its large quantities of arms sales indicate that it sees Abu Dhabi as a profitable regional partner, despite this support undermining Paris’ stated position over Yemen. While France’s overall arms exports decreased in 2019, the UAE remained a major client, purchasing around USD 1.7 billion worth of weaponry, making it France’s second largest arms client.
The two countries have developed extensive economic and military ties since France opened a naval base in Abu Dhabi in 2009. In November 2019, Mohammed bin Ahmed Al Bowardi, the UAE’s Minister of State for Defence Affairs, and Florence Parly, French Minister of the Armed Forces, signed an agreement in Abu Dhabi to increase military cooperation between the two countries.
France has also invested in the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, and Agence France-Muséums has been developing Abu Dhabi’s Louvre Museum, boosting the Emirate culturally while enhancing Paris’ soft power. In addition, the French Business Council, set up in 1987, has contributed to increased French investment in Dubai.
As well as cultural ties, France and the UAE share similar ideological values. The UAE has sought to invest in French Islamic centres, seeking to promote its own version of Islam. Abu Dhabi has been seeking to marginalise Europe-based organisations which it perceives as being aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, while sponsoring its own supposedly ‘moderate’ ideals of Islam to bolster its own soft power. Meanwhile, French President Macron, who once said that “political Islam has “no place” in France, opposes what he calls “Islamist separatism.”
This ‘anti-extremism’ stance has also drawn the UAE and France towards other leaders who present themselves as ‘pro-stability.’ The UAE bankrolled the military coup which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt in 2013. It subsequently supported the Sisi administration, which has effectively crushed the Brotherhood in Egypt. More recently, it has sought to replicate this ‘Sisi model’ of military rule in Libya.
Meanwhile, although Macron has raised concerns over the Sisi regime’s human rights abuses, French ministers have often praised the government for its ‘stability’, indicating that this is Paris’s prime consideration in its support for Sisi’s government.
In conclusion, the similar ideological positions and foreign policy agendas of the UAE and France have driven them closer together. Their mutual opposition to Turkey has now consolidated this cooperation, even if it requires Paris to tolerate Abu Dhabi’s hawkish stance.