In December 2017, The New York Times declared French President Emmanuel Macron the public face of Western diplomacy in the Middle East. Four years on, despite the debacle in Libya, with Lebanon still on tenterhooks, and an ugly falling out with the Turkish president, Macron’s engagement has only deepened as he recently concluded a successful Gulf tour finalizing lucrative defense contracts with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. His visit to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar is also significant ahead of his bid for reelection in April 2022. The visit also comes on the heels of the public spat France had with its NATO allies in September because of the cancelation of a $66 billion submarine deal by Australia in favor of U.S. nuclear-powered vessels. After having unveiled in October his ambitious Vision 2030 roadmap for France, whereby $35 billion will be invested into the country’s health-care system and green economy, Macron is taking advantage of the power vacuum left behind by the United States in the region and reviving the French defense industry, which he sees as essential for France to remain a significant actor in world affairs.
The United States has seemingly been pulling back from the Middle East for over a decade. More recently, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and uncertainty over the chances of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran (in tandem with bruised feelings dating back to the 2015 negotiations) have prompted Gulf Arab states to further diversify their security alignments, fearing abandonment by Washington in the future. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, a traditional ally of the Gulf Arab states, has been immersed in domestic concerns since Brexit, even though it desperately seeks global trade partnerships to compensate for the losses suffered from leaving the European Union. All these factors have bolstered France’s strategic interests in the Middle East, with the Gulf acting as a gateway to Macron’s political ambitions in the region.
Capitalizing on the Gulf
For the four years that the Gulf Cooperation Council remained a divided house over the crisis with Qatar, it did little to obstruct French diplomacy in the region. The UAE has been an all-weather friend of France; however, the ties have only become stronger under Macron’s presidency. Both states have found a common enemy in political Islam and jointly fought alongside the Libyan National Army in Libya, albeit with mixed results at best, and France has joined the UAE and Greece in countering Turkey’s drilling activities and influence in the eastern Mediterranean. During his visit to Abu Dhabi, Macron secured figures big enough to garner both domestic and international headlines. Besides signing a record deal with Abu Dhabi for the sale of 80 Rafale fighter jets costing around $19 billion, $17 billion in economic agreements were also signed.
France is the third-largest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia, after the United States and the United Kingdom. Unlike the leadership in both countries, Macron had enough political capital to push against domestic pressure to halt arms sales to the kingdom over the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen. Moreover, by being the first Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Macron has taken on the mantle of engaging with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he continues to be a pariah in much of the Western world.
However, all is not smooth sailing in the Gulf. Macron’s insistence on allowing the publication and displaying of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the aftermath of the beheading of a French schoolteacher in October 2020 created a huge backlash from Kuwait in particular. Considering Kuwait’s active Parliament and civil society, it became the most vocal of the Gulf states on this issue, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a formal statement criticizing Macron. The cartoon crisis also led to some 60 grocers in Kuwait removing French products from their shelves. Evidently, Kuwait did not form part of the president’s Gulf itinerary.
An Honest Broker or Sheer Politicking?
Macron’s Gulf tour was not restricted to arms and investment deals. He also situated himself and France as a mediator in chief, especially during his visit to Riyadh. Macron attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, France’s old mandate. Tensions had increased after Minister of Information George Kordahi criticized Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen. The critique provoked a strong backlash from Saudi Arabia, which expelled the Lebanese ambassador to the kingdom, and all imports from Lebanon were halted. The UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain also followed suit by recalling their ambassadors from Beirut.
Kordahi resigned from his position just a day before Macron visited the kingdom in the hopes of making the task easy for the French president to negotiate. Macron managed to arrange a joint phone call with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Mohammed bin Salman. The French president later announced a Saudi-French initiative to help Lebanon out of its deep economic crisis.
So far, Macron’s politicking in the Gulf and Middle East at large has solidified France’s presence in the region; whether that translates into an election victory next year remains to be seen. However, these efforts, ranging from his gamble in allying with nondemocratic forces in Libya to facilitating President Abel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt receiving France’s highest civilian honor in 2020 and, more recently, to announcing new national security laws that entail stricter monitoring of the country’s Muslim citizens risk clouding his legacy as an honest broker in bringing peace and stability to the Middle East.