Gulf crisis: A difficult situation for French diplomacy

Christian Chesnot

Published: Updated:

As soon as he arrived at the Elysée, President Emmanuel Macron faced a crisis as serious as the Middle East issue. The tension between Qatar and other Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain) and Egypt has proved to be a challenge for him.

Why? Because France cannot openly take sides with one side or the other. For a long time, Paris has maintained relations of friendship and cooperation with all the main protagonists. The dilemma is therefore great for French diplomacy.

France has signed defense agreements with Doha that bought 24 Rafale fighter planes, whose pilots are currently being trained in France. Over the past decade, Qatar has increased investment in France, notably by taking minority interests in large companies such as Total, Vivendi, Veolia Environment, Vinci, Lagardère and LVMH. The cherry on the top of the Qatari presence in France: Sheikh Tamim is the owner of the Paris St Germain football club.

As French military-economic interests are high, in addition to a defense agreement, France has a permanent naval base in Abu Dhabi. The UAE is among the first investors, among Gulf countries, in France. As for Saudi Arabia, it was promoted to the rank of “strategic partner” of Paris, which echoes the diplomatic convergences with Riyadh.

Beyond the appeals of maintaining calm, what can France do to help resolve this acute crisis in the Gulf, the most serious one since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990?

Actually, not much. In the early days of the crisis, President Emmanuel Macron called on the main protagonists, to dissolve the situation. But it is hard for the Elysee to do more.

The French president, who made realism and pragmatism the alpha and omega of his diplomacy, will not be able to distance himself for very long from this major crisis in the Gulf

Christian Chesnot

Diplomatic interest

Basically, the new French president is less “attached” to the region than his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy, especially with Qatar, and François Hollande with Saudi Arabia.

His diplomatic interest is more oriented toward Africa and the Maghreb, as evidenced by his first trips abroad to Mali and Morocco. During the election campaign, candidate Macron promised to build a more “transparent and frank” relationship with the Gulf.

As for Doha, Emmanuel Macron wants to challenge the tax exemption granted to Qatari investors by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. However, the French president, who made realism and pragmatism the alpha and omega of his diplomacy, will not be able to distance himself for very long from this major crisis in the Gulf.

“It is a strategic region for France and we have very long rooted strategic partnerships with several countries,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated recently that he can only call on the protagonists of the crisis to “decrease the tension” since “division does not serve them.”

Clearly, Paris cannot afford to cut its ties with one or the other. Moreover, in his desire to talk to everyone, Emmanuel Macron sent an invitation to the Emir of Qatar to meet him at the Elysée Palace on July 6th.

The invitation is no longer on the table as Paris announced yesterday that Sheikh Tamim was indeed invited to visit France and that the visit will take place by the end of the summer.

He knows fully well that the key to the solution is not in Paris but in Washington. And most importantly, he probably considers it is better for him not to leave his country because the crisis is still in its incandescent phase.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf.

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