by Giorgio Cafiero and Elaine Miao
France has been one of the key Western states involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the five-week-old crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). France’s 39-year-old president, Emmanuel Macron, has sought to bring the involved parties toward a mediated settlement that restores ties between Qatar and the “quartet” (Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)), which severed relations with the Arabian emirate last month.
On July 15, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged the Saudi/UAE-led bloc to end its blockade of Qatar: “France is calling for these measures to be lifted, especially ones that affect the (Qatari) population, specifically measures that impact bi-national families that have been separated.” Le Drian made that remark from the GCC, where he is currently engaged in shuttle diplomacy among all four Council members involved in the crisis, plus Kuwait, on the heels of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to the Arabian Peninsula. There Tillerson engaged in similar mediation efforts in pursuit of the same goal: a restoration of Doha’s ties with the Saudi/UAE-led bloc.
With close ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, and major investments throughout the greater Middle East, France has high stakes in the outcome of the GCC’s feud. Macron quickly seized upon the Qatar crisis as an opportunity to assert France’s diplomatic prowess in the Middle East at a time when the Trump administration’s mixed messages have given some GCC states reason to look more toward Europe. With France focused on redeveloping economic relations with Iran, underscored by Total’s recent decision to go ahead with a gas project in the country, and maintaining close defense ties with the UAE, the situation in the Persian Gulf is highly complicated from Paris’ perspective.
Paris and Doha’s diplomatic relationship dates back to 1971, the year of Qatar’s independence. By 1972, the Persian Gulf country opened its embassy in France. In September 1971, Hassan Kamel, political advisor to Emir Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani, delivered his speech in French requesting his country’s admission to the United Nations.
Fast forward four and a half decades. Today, French-Qatari relations are close and growing. French investment in Qatar reached $2.62 billion in 2014. With French firms signing contracts for projects linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the Qatar Investment Authority making purchases in French entities (Le Printemps, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club, Le Tanneur, etc.), the two countries are set to deep economic ties. Militarily, Qatar has been spending billions on French arms and fighter jets. A couple years ago, France even quarreled with Italy over naval agreements with the emirate. The two countries often perform bilateral military exercises as well, concluding one last month amid the Qatar crisis.
Given how much French-Qatari trade and defense cooperation has increased in recent years, Paris not surprisingly maintained a “neutral” position in the crisis that recognized the need for a dialogue between the two sides. With its increased investment in the Middle East, France stands to lose much from any deepening of this feud. Recognizing the threats that this crisis poses to France’s interests, not only did Macron fly to Morocco to discuss future diplomatic proceedings over the Qatar crisis, but he urged GCC officials multiple times to reconcile their differences within the crisis’ first 48 hours. Macron spoke with Qatar’s Emir Tamim and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by phone on June 6 as well as with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Hassan Rouhani of Iran two days later, emphasizing the need to ease tension between Doha and other Arab capitals.
Macron at the Helm
Macron’s foreign policy is rooted in the “Gaullo-Mitterrandist consensus”, which is based on following tenets: maintaining independence in global affairs, forming strategic alliances with the world’s dominant powers, and upholding the country’s nuclear deterrent. Composed of the three pillars of openness, independence, and ambiguity, Macron wants to further globalize France while staying true to some of its individuality. The president hopes to emphasize France’s newfound “openness” in trade and investment to deepen ties with the GCC members and other Middle Eastern countries. He would like to strengthen France in the eyes of other countries by highlighting the country’s autonomous decision-making. Lastly, through ambiguity Macron hopes to keep his country’s options open in the Persian Gulf as in all regions of the world.
Since the 1990s, the GCC has offered France valuable investment opportunities. Yet today with Macron at the helm, Paris is committing itself to a deeper role in the Arabian Peninsula’s environment while filling a void of Western power in the Middle East caused by the White House’s incoherent and contradictory reaction to the Qatar crisis, among other issues in the war-torn region. Given how the crisis is undermining international efforts to combat violent Salafist-jihadi forces such as Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which have recently sponsored deadly terrorist attacks throughout France, there are security interests pushing Macron to take a lead in pushing for a diplomatic settlement. Qatar’s potential to serve as a diplomatic bridge between various state and non-state actors across the polarized Middle East is another reason why France has much to gain from Doha and its fellow GCC capitals restoring relations.
Macron has to carefully navigate the ongoing crisis in the GCC as France has cultivated close relations with members of the Council on both sides of the rift. France has a military presence in the UAE, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have done a lot to boost the country’s defense exports since the Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen in 2015. The French defense industry has been an area of growth and job creation amid a period of heightened unemployment. Therefore, reinstating calm in the region not only benefits the collective effort to combat terrorism but also sustains the various defense alliances France has in the region.
The Saudi/UAE-led bloc issued a list of demands for Qatar, which it rejected. Even though the US and Qatar signed an agreement combatting terrorism funding, the “quartet” does not see this as enough. If the Qatar crisis evolves into a tense and prolonged stalemate, there would be major dilemmas for Paris’ foreign policy vis-à-vis the GCC and greater Middle East. Failure to settle the row would unquestionably hurt France’s economic interests in the Arabian Peninsula, especially if the Saudis or Emiratis seek to sanction international trade partners that do business with Qatar. Macron has appointed Le Drian to head the initiative to back Kuwaiti efforts to craft a resolution to the rift. Ultimately, the GCC’s feud has also offered Macron an opportunity early on in his presidency to assert France as a go-to superpower for Arab states seeking diplomatic backchannels with the aim of resolving multifaceted crises in the region.
Elaine Miao is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.