While US President Joe Biden seems determined to reduce the US footprint in the Middle East and finally embrace Washingtonâ€™s long-debated hub for Asia, French President Emmanuel Macron is going in the opposite direction. In recent years, Macron has made repeated trips to Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf States and launched a number of diplomatic initiatives to address regional crises. It’s hard to imagine a Western leader who was half as engaged as Macron on the high-profile issues of the Middle East.
Macron’s recent visit to the Gulf, during which he made France’s largest arms deal to date with the United Arab Emirates and also met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a figure still shunned by most Western leaders, reflects the ambition of the French President, a key player in the regional mix. For Macron, the Middle East is an important arena for French interests, but it also appears to be a place to confidently project France’s global position. For both goals, the route is often seen as a partnership with key golf players, particularly with the United Arab Emirates, which is now France’s most important â€œstrategicâ€ regional ally.
Against the background of the USA’s declining focus on the region – and a general European apathy towards developments in the Middle East – Macron’s commitment is an important sign of his commitment. His willingness to take on complex issues in order to alleviate regional tensions contradicts the trend of international decoupling amid increasing challenges. But this French commitment is also fraught with inherent contradictions – and a strong focus on Macron’s personal ability to break deadlocks, which has clearly also limited the effectiveness of the Parisian approach.
France’s immediate interest in the Middle East lies in the need to stabilize Europe’s southern neighborhood, given the profound impact the regional conflicts have had on Europe over the past decade. Under former US President Donald Trump, French efforts focused on saving the nuclear deal with Iran and preventing a conflict between Washington and its partners in the Middle East on the one hand and Tehran on the other. Those vigorous efforts continued during Biden’s tenure, with France helping to fund the Baghdad conference in Iraq in August, which required significant personal commitment from Macron to bring together officials from the Arab Gulf States and Iran.
Macron’s most recent meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince – which breaks with much of MBS’s diplomatic isolation from the West, as he is known – was aimed at ensuring the kingdom’s reengagement with Lebanon, a country Macron is after Port explosion last year and ongoing economic development has made special efforts to collapse, and to which Saudi Arabia recently severed ties. Paris sees Saudi engagement as crucial to preventing Lebanon from falling completely into the abyss. In return for the meeting, the Saudi Crown Prince resumed telephone contact with the Lebanese Prime Minister for the first time since the outbreak of the diplomatic dispute between the two countries.
These efforts reflect Macron’s repeated willingness to take the initiative to try to break dead ends and get things done, as well as an assessment that France needs to be diplomatically proactive and engage key power brokers in order to make real progress on priority issues. Just as Macron saw the need to meet with MBS, he was in regular contact with Iran and is said to have met Mohammed Raad, head of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, on a visit to Beirut last year. Similarly, in 2017 he led a high-level Western engagement with General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, another figure many of France’s partners had previously kept at bay.
Macron seems to want to fill the real or imagined leadership vacuum while the US reduces its involvement in the Middle East.
As part of this effort, Macron appears to want to fill the leadership vacuum in the wider Middle East, whether real or imaginary, as the US cuts back on regional involvement, believing France may act as a necessary external mediator. But Paris also seems to see an opportunity to use the regional unease in Washington’s repositioning to strengthen its own relationships with regional actors. At the heart of this vision is France’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates. In recent years, Paris and Abu Dhabi have increasingly come together in a shared regional vision, with the notable exception of Syria, where France continues to maintain a solid line and act privately – if not publicly – as unwilling to challenge the UAE – Abu Dhabi’s reintegration with President Bashar al-Assad. Elsewhere, the two countries appear to be largely focused on a strong vision of regional stability as the best means to fight terrorism and contain migratory flows, while at the same time sharing a strong aversion to political Islam.
On this front, it is noteworthy that, while Macron often focuses on mobilizing the European Union to help solve international problems, other than efforts to save the nuclear deal with Iran, there is far less effort to establish a common European one Citing reaction in the middle east. Part of that may be because Macron may be right to believe that other European countries will not rise. But it also seems to reflect the feeling in Paris that the Middle East is an arena for France to demonstrate its global standing as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council rather than a leading EU member state, as well as prioritizing its strategic ties with Abu Dhabi towards its European partners.
This dynamic was most evident in Libya, where France and the United Arab Emirates have long supported Haftar’s rise to power and viewed him as the best placed figure to stabilize the country. This culminated in Haftar’s ill-fated 2019 military campaign to capture Tripoli, which further escalated the country’s longstanding conflict. In contrast, key French EU allies such as Germany have advocated a more inclusive political solution in Libya. (Haftar’s inability to push through a military settlement eventually pushed outside actors, including France and the United Arab Emirates, to support a new, if fragile, political path towards elections.)
The partnership between France and the United Arab Emirates has also expanded to include mutual hostility towards Turkey. France-led efforts to counterbalance Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean have brought Abu Dhabi closer to Greece and Cyprus, including joint military exercises between the four countries.
For France, relations with Abu Dhabi are of course about more than just political orientation. They clearly have an important economic dimension. Macron’s visit to Abu Dhabi, where France has a naval base, resulted in the two countries signing France’s largest arms sale ever, a $ 19 billion deal for 80 Rafale fighter jets. This was a much-needed victory for Paris after the recent collapse of its previous largest arms deal, a $ 66 billion deal for Australia to buy 12 French submarines, torpedoed by the AUKUS Pact between Canberra, London and Washington . Reports that The United Arab Emirates have now suspended their sales contract for US F-35 multi-role fighter jets must be particularly satisfactory for France in view of the AUKUS debacle.
However, this relationship with the United Arab Emirates also serves to highlight the central tensions at the center of France’s rapprochement with the Middle East. After signing the Rafale deal in Abu Dhabi, French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced that it would “directly contribute to regional stability”. Selling more fighter jets to the Middle East, not least to a country that has actively supported conflicts in Libya and Yemen, is, however, a questionable demand for many. Today it might feel like the United Arab Emirates has opened a page and has entered diplomatic dialogues with both Iran and Turkey in recent months, and Paris undoubtedly sees its privileged access to Abu Dhabi as a means of shaping that regional development. But many have their doubts.
This issue of effectiveness hangs over France’s wider regional efforts. While Macron should be commended for the considerable energy he has put into resolving crises across the Middle East, French diplomacy has repeatedly struggled to deliver it. To take Lebanon’s example, Macron may have secured a phone call between MBS and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, but it remains uncertain – and even doubtful – that this will result in a more active Saudi role there. Meanwhile, France’s efforts to advance a Lebanese package of political and economic reforms, led by Macron’s repeated trips to Beirut, have failed.
When it comes to France being at the crucial tables and Paris maintaining a privileged position with key regional states, French politics are a success – and last week’s visit to the Gulf proved that role. But Paris needs to do more, leveraging Macron’s energetic reach and possibly taking a broader European approach to force more meaningful concessions from regional actors if it is to secure its final vision of a stable region.
Julien Barnes-Dacey is Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He works on European policy towards the wider region, with a special focus on Syria and regional geopolitics.