Home / Articles / UAE and France: A Key, and Challenging, Relationship
The dynamic French-Emirati relationship relies on a wide range of areas of cooperation, especially in the defense field, reinforced by the close interpersonal relationship between French President Emanuel Macron and United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Mohamed bin Zayed.
The two countries have an opportunity to strengthen their partnership in the face of emerging energy challenges and the desire to navigate a “third way” regarding the US-Chinese competition.
France wishes to make the UAE its major partner in the region. The UAE, however, pursues a multi-aligned foreign policy in which it has strong ties with other powers—French allies but also rivals, depending on the field—which may weaken the alignment of French and Emirati interests over the long run.
On January 17, 2022, a little after 10 a.m., the Iranian-aligned Houthis in Yemen carried out a surprise, deadly drone attack on the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi. Paris responded by activating, for the first time, the 1995 defense agreement between the two countries. While France rushed to deploy additional Rafale fighter aircraft and to reinforce the UAE’s air defense system, America’s response, to Emirati chagrin, took longer. Although France’s reply was less consequential compared to America’s, due to its reduced capabilities, these countermeasures were highly appreciated by UAE officials who commented on France’s reliability.
France’s actions sent a significant international signal regarding its Emirati partnership. This relationship has developed over the decades in a wide range of domains, deepening in recent years. As stated by Mohamed bin Zayed during his state visit in July 2022, “Our countries enjoy long-standing partnerships across many fields. We look forward to further collaborations and strengthening ties towards a prosperous future.” Both sides desire a stronger partnership in the face of a period of upheaval. Challenges remain to this strengthened relationship, namely an unequal division of power and a set of common interests, but of differing ways to achieve their goals.
Diverging Diplomatic Perceptions
As an heir to General Charles de Gaulle’s “Arab policy” initiated in the 1960s, France wants to act as a “balancing power for peace and security” in the world, including the Arabian Peninsula. Paris’s doctrine aims to promote itself as a serious and trustworthy alternative to Gulf States that wish to avoid becoming trapped in the US-China competition. The UAE is especially concerned about this potential outcome. France’s “third way” policy allows the Elysée to conduct opportunistic diplomacy by adapting to changing circumstances, as shown by the 2022 Houthi attack. By taking advantage of circumstantial dynamics and relying on its historical presence, France assesses that it can strengthen its position as a key player on the regional scene.
Under Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the French-Emirati partnership has accelerated. Former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande tended to rely mostly on Qatari and Saudi partners, while maintaining good relations with the UAE, as illustrated by the opening of the French military base in 2009. However, the geopolitical context and the close interpersonal relationship between Macron and bin Zayed led to the change of France’s privileged interlocutor. This is partly due to the French president’s broad powers of diplomatic decision-making, emphasized by Macron’s presidency—as underlined by the director of the PRISM initiative, Emma Soubrier.
On the other side, the UAE’s decision-making is handled by bin Zayed and his inner circle. Therefore, it makes it easier for French officials to cut out intermediaries and cement their relationship. The reciprocal significance attached to the partnership materialized during the first state visit of bin Zayed in July 2022, thirty-one years after the last visit to France by a UAE sheikh. Additionally, both leaders met several times abroad prior to this visit, in September 2021, December 2021, and May 2022. Since then, the phone has kept ringing frequently, as pointed out by the director general of Dubai Public Policy Research Center, Mohammed Baharoon. They met most recently in May 2023 in the run-up to the COP28.
Whereas the Elysée sees the UAE as one of its major Middle East partners, or even its primary one, the UAE has embarked on a fluid, strategic, and pragmatic foreign policy in recent years. In fact, the UAE is diversifying its partnerships in the region through a “zero problem” policy aiming to normalize its situation with rival neighbors while retaining the importance of coercive force. Although repeated differences rose in the formerly close relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and bin Zayed, such as in January 2023, the UAE has established relations with Israel in 2020, re-established ties with Iran in 2023, reopened its embassy in Qatar the same year, and rapidly improved the formerly mentioned relationship with Turkey. France remains a key ally, but not the major one. With respect to defense, the United States is the vital partner, followed by France as the supplementing ally. With this in mind, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, Jean-Loup Samaan, noted, “If we make a comparison with insurance, the US is the main life insurance and France is a complementary one.” For instance, the US deploys 5,000 soldiers to the country, seven times more than France. Concerning China, even if it may nourish military interests in the federation, it is above all the main economic partner of the UAE, which serves as a strategic component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The Elysée must be vigilant not to lock itself into a self-centered perception by assuming to be the primary ally of the federation. In an interview with an expert in the bilateral relationship, the researcher expressed worries of a “French self-persuasion ability” with a total alignment with UAE policy, even though the geopolitical reality raises questions. For example, this has been seen with the UAE’s abstention at first from voting on February 25, 2022, in favor of the UN draft resolution about the Russian invasion, whereas France and its Western allies voted in favor. By extension, the federation is keen to develop a multi-alignment capable of elevating it on the international stage. As pointed out by Soubrier, the debate concerning America’s reduced involvement in the Middle East may be an argument enabling the Gulf States, such as the UAE, to justify their multi-alignment in order to maximize their power. Consequently, Paris should envision and be prepared for a prospective weakening of their relationship’s exclusivity, if it ever existed.
Westerners are no longer the unipolar driver in bilateral relations with their Gulf counterparts. The latter are now willing and able to assert their own desire for a balanced relationship, given their comparative advantages in energy and in direct foreign investments. With this in mind, Paris should question the existence of a bilateral relationship’s “reverse influence” that might exist in the medium and long run, but this is still difficult to assess. In other words, a relationship where the balance of power is reversed in favor of the UAE leads to a potential ability to compel France and the absence of a strong response from the Elysée due to its numerous interests with the federation.
A Comprehensive Partnership
Diplomatic relations between France and the UAE go back a long time. Their relationship began in 1972, one year after the creation of the monarchy on the impetus of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In the beginning, their partnership, with an agreement signed in 1975, was merely focused on cultural and technical cooperation. Since then, both states deepened their relationship in various fields.
The French-Emirati partnership is based on shared interests and a common strategic understanding of regional threats. Their major concerns encompass the fight against terrorism and also political Islam, due to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is regarded as a domestic issue for bin Zayed. Regarding terrorism, the UAE sees France as a necessary and experienced partner, whose actions in Mali it has supported, said Mohammed Baharoon. Being the only European Union member state still prioritizing the fight against terrorism in its regional strategy, these threats are prompting the French and Emiratis to step up their cooperation.
France and the UAE have succeeded in nurturing deep and dynamic relations in part because France has avoided tumultuous drum-beating campaigns for human rights and the use of French weapons in war, preferring private messaging, a French official told me. Although French military sales are a key component of their strategic partnership, they are not without consequences on Western public opinion, as the International Federation for Human Rights’ investigation of the war in Yemen revealed. Such military missions, like the one undertaken by the UAE through the Saudi coalition in Yemen, no longer seem to be on the agenda with bin Zayed’s new diplomatic policy since his withdrawal in 2020.
UAE’s multi-alignment policies may benefit Paris through the country’s common policy of intervening in the region via mediation. In fact, both countries’ willingness to bring parties to the table, like France with the Baghdad Conferences, may promote their diplomatic alignment and greater efficiency in regional and worldwide issues. Emirati partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries also enable France to build a network of alliances and strengthen its presence in this region, while the federation can also benefit from the French network.
The French naval command for the Indian Ocean is based in Abu Dhabi, and the two countries embarked on an open Indo-Pacific trilateral cooperation initiative with India in February 2023. This strategic alliance covers a number of areas, including defense, green energy, and technology. They have also supported major events this year such as the G20 held by India and COP28 to be organized by the UAE in November. This agreement enables France to connect the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific, while lending itself to the growing strategy of “minilateralism” to defend its interests. Although it shows promise, India and the UAE do not solely maintain minilateral relations with France in the region. Both countries have a minilateral approach, such as through the I2U2 partnership.
Defense: The Cornerstone of the Relationship
France’s defense partnership with the UAE is undoubtedly the pinnacle of all its relations with states in the Middle East. Signed in 1995 and constantly reinforced, this partnership goes alongside a defense clause and a set of three bases, which opened in 2009. The Al Dhafra air base, the naval base at Mina Zayed port, and the land base at Zayed Military City, constitute a key array of facilities able to deploy a full range of military capabilities far from mainland France. Furthermore, the land base plays a tactical role by training French troops in a desert environment before sending them to similar terrain like the Sahara. This partnership is more important for Paris, as its military facilities in the UAE are critical for supporting its running missions, such as the Chammal operation to curtail the Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq and Syria. In addition, it enables Paris to project its power in a highly sensitive region near strategic trade routes and at the gateway of the Indo-Pacific area. On the other hand, this partnership also allows UAE’s diversification of its defense partners and responds to the survivalist sentiment that drives the leaders of the federation to ensure the safety of their state through Western deterrence.
In its quest for autonomy, the UAE is also diversifying its military equipment suppliers. France remains a strong provider, as illustrated by the largest arms contract of the French Fifth Republic signed in December 2021. For $19 billion, the Gulf federation committed to acquire eighty Rafale fighter jets, twelve H225M Caracal helicopters, and additional military material at the expense of the American F-35 jet fighters. Despite this, the UAE’s cancellation of the helicopter deal in May 2023—a major contract resulting in the loss of $880 million for the French manufacturer Airbus—confirmed the healthy state of French-Emirati military trades. Unlike its competitors, France remains well-established in this market. As outlined by Mohamed Baharoon, France is the only country to have equipment used in all three Emirati army corps (naval, air, and land). Although the UAE ranks as the fifth-largest customer for the French defense industry in the years 2011 to 2020, French equipment accounted for only 6.2 percent of the federation’s arms imports between 2017 and 2021. France thus comes after the United States, Russia, China, and Turkey, and has to face competition in niche sectors by European manufacturers and Israeli companies, which benefit from a post-Abraham Agreement geopolitical climate.
France aims to sell arms without binding purchasers to political commitments, as is often the case with US arms deals. Emirati enthusiasm for French equipment is essential for Paris, as it boosts national employment and absorbs military production—which the domestic market cannot do. However, it also gives leverage to the UAE. This contractor diversification benefits the UAE’s aim of developing their military-industrial complex through technology transfers and partnerships with French companies, like Dassault.
These arms sales are however under a certain amount of French supervision. This trade dynamic has enabled the country to become a “grey zone” for unhindered trade in French equipment and to position itself as a hub of the international arms trade. Over the medium- and long-run, it could enable the UAE to become an exporting country that challenges Western manufacturers. For the moment, this policy allows it to sell those types of equipment to less developed countries that are not markets of interest to the West and to strengthen its military leadership as a Gulf Cooperation Council member.
Moreover, the UAE is becoming a cross-regional defense instruction hub by training soldiers and by hosting similar programs directed by allies. One person I interviewed underlined that the major concern of the French heads of the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) relates to the recipient audience of French technology. In a country composed of 88 percent foreigners, the private sector accounts for 73.9 percent of them, on which the defense market is highly dependent. Hence, the risk of industrial espionage by other countries via foreign consultants is a risk that is seriously considered.
Such military cooperation raises concerns about France’s ability to remain a strategic UAE military partner in the long run, especially if the “Little Sparta” develops its own capabilities and fosters military relationships with international and regional rivals of France, like Russia and China. Nevertheless, the current shares of the latter should be put into perspective. As stated by Jean-Loup Samaan, its partnerships are still modest, even if Chinese military cooperation is increasing.
Deepening Cooperation Through Energy and Economy
Energy and business attractiveness account for the major comparative advantages of the federation, among which Dubai and Abu Dhabi play a driving role.
Although France is pursuing a policy of reducing the share of fossil fuels in its energy mix, they still amount to a substantial 46 percent of it, including 5.65 percent of French imports of UAE’s refined petroleum. Even if France’s dependence on UAE’s fossil fuel supplies is modest, the latter’s shares may increase in the medium run following the European Union’s decision to end its reliance on Russian oil and gas in May 2022. In fact, the war in Ukraine puts pressure on France to reduce its fossil fuel imports from Russia—especially regarding Russian refined petroleum, which hold 21.1 percent of France’s imports. Hence, TotalEnergies signed a diesel agreement in July 2022 with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). However, in an interview, an expert on energy issues at the Policy Center for the New South, Francis Perrin, tempered the critical importance of the situation for France, which has managed to broaden its suppliers with a constant policy of diversification through successive governments. While France is attempting to embark on an energy transition with a view to climate change and energy independence, the UAE is not ready to give up its fossil fuels. The latter provides the federation a financial windfall to support its other economic sectors. Despite divergent motivations, their interests are aligned. They eventually strengthened their partnership through a framework agreement in joint investment projects in July 2022.
The two countries are business partners, making the UAE the second biggest customer of France in the Middle East behind Saudi Arabia. This dynamic business relationship is underlined by the presence of around 600 subsidiaries of French companies from a wide range of sectors, including banking, luxury goods, and tourism like Accor, which is the leading hotel operator in Dubai. Therefore, France has built a strong and diversified economic presence in the UAE, its biggest one in the Middle East. Thanks to the attractiveness of its thirty-nine free trade zones, the UAE is allowing French companies to reach other markets in the region and neighboring areas like Asia and Africa.
Nevertheless, the French-Emirati partnership must be placed into context. In terms of trade, the United States, China, India, and Japan represent the UAE’s biggest business partners. France’s market share in the UAE trended downward recently, falling from 7 percent in 2000 to 2.2 percent in 2019, even though trade has increased in monetary terms. It remains significant thanks to the aeronautic, defense, and luxury products (jewelry, perfumes, and bags) that France exports. Even if the UAE is the second biggest investor from the Middle East in France, its investments are mainly oriented towards securities and real estate. The UAE-France Business Council launched in January 2023 could possibly ensure better targeting and more profitable investments.
Culture as a Soft Power Shared Medium
According to journalist Sébastien Boussois, the UAE is aiming to become a “New Venice” by relying on soft power. Consequently, cultural cooperation constitutes a cornerstone of the French-Emirati partnership. In the branding strategy dear to the Gulf States, the cultural and educational field of the UAE can benefit from two internationally renowned French institutions. The Paris Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi University opened in 2006. Moreover, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, France’s largest cultural project abroad since 2017, helped promote the image of an enlightened and modern state in the West. Reciprocally, the federation has also invested in France, such as the restoration of the Imperial Theatre which ended in 2019.
Furthermore, Paris can rely on the UAE in its strategic will to spread the French language and its culture in a highly disparate geographical region. This soft power is a tool used in the country, hosting the largest number of French registered expatriates in the Gulf–27,030 in 2022. The various academic and cultural projects, including the implementation of French lectures in Emirati public schools since 2019, are thus levers for implanting French culture in a country where French traditions do not exist. In this dynamic of deepening their ties, as well as the desire to strengthen a channel of influence towards Paris and French-speaking countries, the UAE became an associate member of the International Organization of La Francophonie in 2018.
In November 2023, COP28 is going to be held in Dubai and will be an occasion to take stock of COP21 in Paris. Besides climate issues, bin Zayed’s invitation to Bashar Al Assad might raise tensions between Westerners and the UAE. It is safe to assume that it will not tarnish French-Emirati relations, because of French pragmatism aimed at strengthening its partnership with a growing player on the regional and international scene. In fact, the French-Emirati close relationship in a span of domains—including strategy, defense, economy, energy, and culture—demonstrates the importance attached to it by each partner. This is further reinforced by the privileged interpersonal relationship between the two statesmen.
Nevertheless, it would seem more essential for France to set this partnership in stone than for the UAE. The reality suggests a greater risk of France’s dependence on the UAE. Therefore, Paris needs to reflect on France’s policy towards the Gulf States, especially the UAE, which is becoming more independent and powerful, rendering the Quai d’Orsay incapable of compelling—to some extent—its ally in the event of behaviors contrary to French interests.
The European Union could be a means of strengthening France’s strategic role in the UAE, while promoting European influence. It would seem wiser for Europeans to work together to promote their values and to confront their systemic rivals’ hegemony, such as China’s economic power, from which many environmental, human rights, and espionage issues arise. The Elysée might have the assets to be a driving force in deepening EU-UAE relations. In fact, it has a strong political credit among UAE’s sheikh and a pro-active diplomacy.
For instance, France is leading the European EMASoH-AGENOR mission from its Abu Dhabi headquarter. Nevertheless, the Elysée would need to rely on European allies–especially Germany, which is the UAE’s leading European economic partner–to promote a rebalancing of economic forces in the federation. It might be in France’s interest to promote a bloc of European companies respecting rules common to all twenty-seven member states, rather than allowing Chinese companies, free of any restrictive standards, to increase their hold on the region’s markets. This would reinforce France’s position as a European driving force and bolster its strategic influence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, it would enable some European member states with limited capacity in the UAE to accelerate their entry into the Emirati market including Croatia, a nation that has no chamber of commerce there.
The UAE is undoubtedly the current key partner of France in this region, but Paris must ensure that it does not become a prisoner of this partnership through the deepening of it. To prevent this situation, France should pursue efforts to strengthen and diversify its relations with other actors in the region and propel the Europeans to play a greater and more visible role. Remaining a current key ally of the UAE is in France’s interest, but it must not be achieved by reducing its future leeway among the UAE and regional partners.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.