Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrates its second anniversary in November having just gained yet another extremely precious work of art with Rodin’s The Thinker. This is another illustration of the special relationship between France and the United Arab Emirates and an opportunity to reflect on the “soft power” efforts that the “Louvre of the desert and light” epitomizes.
The museum is a valuable weapon in the regional “cultural and architectural arms race.” And it is the crown jewel of a more comprehensive strategy to put the UAE on the world map of culture, as shown by the additional construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and, above all, Dubai Expo 2020. In this context, France has been a central partner, as it has been with other important cultural initiatives in the region, including the partnership between Paris and Riyadh for the development of the Al Ula archeological site. Of course, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is also a power tool for France – and not just because of the power of beauty, which, in the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “can save the world,” a reference made by President Emmanuel Macron when he visited the museum before its grand opening in 2017. More crucially, the spaceship-looking museum stands as one of the numerous vessels of a strategic relationship that goes well beyond this cultural dimension.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the French naval base in Abu Dhabi, which was a significant token of France’s commitment to Gulf security, as it was the first – and remains the only – permanent French base in the Middle East. For the UAE, bilateral cooperation with Paris, in particular when it comes to defense and security agreements as well as arms trade, has been part of Abu Dhabi’s broader strategy of diversifying partnerships since the early 1990s, aiming not to become too dependent on any one world power. Beyond that historical and strategic background, there has been a “Macron effect” in this relationship. The French president indeed has a number of qualities that appeal to many Gulf leaders, which may help explain his recent success in bringing France, and Europe, to the forefront of different diplomatic initiatives in the region.
First, the highly personalized and centralized power dynamics that Macron has practiced since the beginning of his term have supported direct relations with his counterparts, the rival princes of the Arabian Peninsula. To be sure, the institutions of the French Fifth Republic, established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, encourage a strong government and personalized leadership. Since he ran for the presidency at the head of En Marche, a political movement bearing his initials and which he has embodied, Macron has taken this characteristic of the French Fifth Republic – hypersonalization – to the next level. The French president, who wanted to rule like Jupiter (“unchallenged and detached from trivialities, like the Roman god of the skies”), has applied this governance style both in domestic and foreign politics. While his Jovian aura has rapidly started fading within France, and has gradually seriously eroded (as the ongoing Yellow Vests opposition shows), it has successfully contributed to bringing France back onto the international stage. Macron’s youth and energy has further helped his relations with the princes of France’s three main partners in the Gulf: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In 2016, the ascendency to power of France’s young “political prince” was described in terms similar to what was said about Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Second, the apparent inclusiveness of the policies he brings forward has also been an important asset. On the international front, Macron is making multipolarity and convergence work toward a common goal of peace and stability. In the context of recent Gulf tensions, he has been careful not to antagonize anyone, and to frame initiatives with other European partners, as a united voice. This strategy, which contrasts with that of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, is intended to move toward de-escalation, and it seems to be appreciated by Gulf partners, particularly in the UAE. Gulf leaders seemingly welcome efforts by their European partners, as well as others such as Russia and China, to ease tensions through discussions rather than continued sanctions, which have become a means without a clear end. Signs of this can perhaps be found in the relative silence with which announcements such as the Chinese pledge to invest $400 billion in Iran have been met in the Arabian Peninsula, and most importantly in the increasing number of reports and rumors of Gulf leaders themselves entering into talks with Tehran – or considering it. On November 10, at the Sixth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that “there could be a path to a deal with Iran that all parties might soon be ready to embark on.”
Third, the Macron diplomacy relation to time might also be an important aspect of its effectiveness in the Gulf. One of Macron’s campaign arguments as a wannabe Jovian head of state ready to revolutionize French politics (or at least appear to do so) was to resacralize the presidential function with fewer political statements, a sense of solemnity, and a clearer anchorage in long-term history – and strategy. This paced vision of policymaking is comparable to the way monarchs approach time. Crowned heads of states, because they do not have to worry about being re-elected within a constrained electoral calendar, have the luxury of thinking of their strategies in a longer-term time frame. This is reflected in the phrase attributed to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan: “You have the watches but we have the time.” This is particularly apparent in what was perceived as a “missed opportunity” of talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Macron tried to set up on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September.
Focusing on the lack of an immediate outcome, which is partly explained by the hyperspeed of the news cycle and the associated need for sensationalism, might not be very relevant here. Seeing this event as a wasted opportunity or even as a “failure” indeed misses a crucial point, which is that the U.S. and Iranian leaders, under close attention by the French president, had nevertheless agreed upon a four-point document stating that Tehran would commit to “never acquire a nuclear weapon” and “fully comply with its nuclear obligations [and] accept a negotiation of a long-term framework for its nuclear activities” in return for Washington’s commitment to “lift all sanctions re-imposed since 2017” to insure that Iran has “full ability to export its oil and freely use its revenues.” The mere existence of such a document shows that a new chapter in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, and of the Gulf region, could be possible.
While many observers of the region continue calling for harder politics toward Iran, despite mounting evidence that the “maximum pressure” policy is not working and might even be counterproductive, others – including partners from the Arabian Peninsula – are increasingly calling for dialogue. Of course, they are aware that this “will be long, and [that] patience and courage will be required,” as stated by Gargash. Now, if both sides of the Gulf converge on calling for a carefully paced and strategically patient approach to regional politics to reach long-term and concrete peace, the negotiation chapter opened by the French “Jovian prince” might in fact be ongoing, and there may still be hope to avoid conflict in the Gulf.
Biden will likely put weapons sales to the Gulf on the back burner, but, at the end of the day, the administration’s positions on arms sales will reflect continuity, not change.
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