France was unusually assertive when describing its new Middle East policy at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain last week. French Minister of Defense Florence Parly said France would protect the oppressed militarily if necessary, and affirmed that engaging all actors, including Iran, was central to realizing its vision of peace. This forthright stance opens new opportunities for Gulf countries, but it may also require some tough choices.
Parly’s speech built upon the new doctrine described in some detail by President Emmanuel Macron during an August 2019 speech, following the G7 meeting in France. With the UK’s international stature weakened by Brexit, and the US’s increasingly isolationist policy, the French have sensed an opportunity to eclipse the traditional Anglo-American axis in the international arena.
Two distinct tenets of Macron’s vision are multilateralism in all domains, and a desire to engage all parties, including China, Iran and Russia, under the assumption that these countries will embrace multilateralism with the same level of enthusiasm if it is presented in the appropriate manner.
Part of this is due to Macron’s pro-environmental stance: he has correctly surmised that global warming requires all countries to work together. But it is also partially self-serving, as he wants to put France in a position to benefit economically from the new world order. His pro-globalization party is threatened by the domestic inequality that the capitalist system seems to be breeding, reflected in the chronic protests of the “yellow vests.” Macron needs to reengineer the global system to improve living standards for the French masses, and to give his party ideological legitimacy. Transforming France into a balancing actor in the world’s major conflicts will open new economic doors to the Republic.
In the past, France would not have been able to be at the center of a new multilateral system, as many countries would first look to the UK or US for guidance. But since the 9/11 attacks, a series of American presidents—driven in large measure by public opinion—have decided that unilateralism is the preferred course of action, and the current leader, Donald Trump, has accelerated the US’ rejection of the UN, NATO, and other international organizations. In dealing with its adversaries China, Russia and Iran, the US seems content to employ stern unilateral measures, seeking acquiescence from its allies on a bilateral basis.
The UK’s position on many of these issues is much closer to that of the French, as they themselves have been the balancing power in Europe historically, and in the EU in modern times. But Brexit has forced the UK to either look inward, or to follow the American lead, creating an international vacuum that Macron wants the French to fill.
For the Gulf countries, these developments bring economic opportunities. If they believe that Macronian multilateralism will succeed, then they should continue to deepen economic relations with China and Russia, as the two nuclear powers will see their global influence continue to grow as the US’s continues to recede.
And as France’s influence within the EU grows, so will its ability to determine whether the GCC can finally secure a free trade agreement with the EU. The previous round of negotiations was suspended about 10 years ago, but the potential benefits remain huge. The EU single market is almost $20 trillion in size, over 10 times that of the GCC, and access to large markets is a critical enabling factor in the Gulf countries’ economic visions.
However, it is likely that France will exact a political price for this economic boon: all of the GCC countries distancing themselves from the US’ maximum pressure policy against Iran.
Moreover, even on the economic front, France will likely demand higher levels of commitment to combat climate change from the GCC countries. The Gulf countries continue to be significantly above the world averages in terms of energy consumption and greenhouse gases, and while that can be partially justified by the desert climate, it is fair to say that the Gulf countries are yet to deploy all measures at their disposal in the fight against climate change.
In contrast, should the Gulf countries doubt the efficacy of Macron’s version of multilateralism, or regard the price as being too high to pay, then they will likely continue to work closely with their American and British allies, while trying to navigate the massive political uncertainty that both countries are facing at the moment, and for the foreseeable future; while also pursuing the conventional form of multilateralism that the Gulf countries have favored historically.
Whatever choice the Gulf countries take, there can be little doubt that developing their own economies, and adhering to the fundamental principles of their economic visions, is the surest route to safety.
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.SHOW MORE