French armed forces will take part in large-scale war games in the Gulf next week, underlining France’s growing military presence in the region amid heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
France will deploy 1,500 personnel, two frigates and eight Mirage fighter jets to the defence exercises, held in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Paris has long-standing defence co-operation agreements with the two countries and is one of their biggest suppliers of arms. But its involvement in the joint manoeuvres – codenamed Gulf Shield – follows President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement last month of a permanent French base in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital.
The base will give France its first permanent foothold in the Gulf, across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, and will send a signal to Tehran that Paris is determined to protect its strategic interests in the region.
Iran criticised Mr Sarkozy’s announcement as an “unfriendly” move.
“We believe such a presence is not conducive to peace and security in the region,” Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said at the time. The French president has adopted a tougher stance than that of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, against Iran’s nuclear activities and is seeking stronger international sanctions against Tehran.
A UAE official said there was nothing new in French military exercises in the Gulf, but the exercises come at a time of diplomatic manoeuvring.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, undertook some rare shuttle diplomacy this week, with visits to both Iran and it ally, Syria.
The French base will be contained within a UAE facility and will eventually house up to 400 personnel from the navy, army and airforce. It is intended as a depot to support French maritime surveillance operations in the Gulf, allowing ships to spend more time in the region. A UAE official said it could develop into a more comprehensive base over time.
Mr Sarkozy described the new facility as a “strategic rupture” because, for the first time, France would establish a permanent base outside its former African colonies. The US is the only other foreign power with a permanent base in the Gulf, in Bahrain.
The UAE installation could herald a much broader re-organisation of France’s overseas military deployments under a defence white paper expected in mid-April.
A senior French diplomat told the Financial Times recently that France was considering whether to close its base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, because it was too expensive.
However, Christophe Prazuck, the spokesman for the French chiefs of staff, said the Abu Dhabi facility was “not at the same level” as the Djibouti base, where nearly 3,000 French personnel are stationed. “This does not substitute our strategic interests in Africa,” he said.
A foreign ministry official said: “This doesn’t spell the end for Djibouti, but it spells the end for Djibouti as the only location of military support.”
Officials in Paris said that setting up a French base – opened at the request of the UAE under a 1995 defence accord – and conducting joint exercises in the Gulf were not designed to send a warning signal to Iran. “However, if they feel under pressure, we would not want to disabuse them,” said an official.
François Heisbourg, an adviser to the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said the planned base was a reminder to powers in the region that France fought alongside the US and the UK in the first Gulf war in 1990-91 in defence of its strategic interests.