Did French President Macron’s Gulf Tour Complicate US Regional Policy?
These three outcomes could complicate the US’ regional policy and possibly even be interpreted as an asymmetrical form of revenge for stealing France’s historically unprecedented nuclear sub deal with Australia.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited the Gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia last weekend during a two-day trip. His regional tour resulted in several significant outcomes. The first is that Paris and Abu Dhabi clinched a €16 billion deal for 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes and 12 Airbus combat helicopters, which is France’s largest arms agreement to date. It comes a few months after the US and UK poached France’s €31 billion nuclear sub deal with Australia.
Second, Macron announced while in Doha that some EU countries were considering opening up a joint diplomatic mission in Kabul to liaise with the de facto Taliban-ruled government there. He noted, however, that this wouldn’t imply formal recognition of their authority. It should be remembered that the Qatari capital was the scene of peace talks between the US and the Taliban. It’s also where many foreign diplomats informally interact with the Taliban since the group has a political office there.
And finally, the French President held a joint phone call while in Riyadh between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati aimed at soothing over their recent differences. Another crisis between the two unexpectedly exploded after the Lebanese Information Minister (who resigned on Friday) earlier criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Macron therefore showed that France is still crucial to managing disputes in its former Levantine colony.
These three outcomes could complicate the US’ regional policy and possibly even be interpreted as an asymmetrical form of revenge for stealing France’s historically unprecedented nuclear sub deal with Australia. To explain, despite a recent improvement in Emirati-Iranian relations, the former still remains suspicious of the latter’s alleged nuclear intentions and is skeptical of the US-led efforts to renegotiate the nuclear deal. France’s arming of the UAE is meant to maintain a regional military-strategic balance.
Regarding the second outcome, the US has pressured his partners to keep their distance from the Taliban until it capitulates to America’s pressure to unilaterally make far-reaching socio-political reforms. Macron’s pragmatic defiance of this demand is aimed at managing that war-torn country’s impending humanitarian crisis. It shows that France is behaving in an increasingly independent way, almost intentionally doing the opposite of what the US says in order to show its anger at AUKUS.
As for the last of Macron’s achievements, he’s signaling that France will compete to fill the diplomatic-strategic void left in the Levantine-Gulf regions following the US’ gradual disengagement from there as it pivots towards attempting to “contain” China in the Asia-Pacific. The US’ traditional partners like Saudi Arabia increasingly distrust it for that reason as well as its ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. France therefore cleverly realized that it might be able to replace the US’ dwindling influence.
All of this complicates US policy. The declining unipolar hegemon no longer dominates the West Asian region in which it had previously exerted its dominance. Its flip-flopping policy there across the last three administrations (Obama-Trump-Biden) has concerned its traditional allies. America is no longer regarded as a reliable partner, but as a self-interested actor aiming solely to advance its short-term strategic interests. France is furious after AUKUS and actively competing to replace US influence there.
Its arming of the UAE is especially significant given the US’ prior claims of war crimes being committed by all sides of the Yemen War in which Abu Dhabi used to play a leading role. Washington has also recently criticized Riyadh for its alleged human rights violations, which would have been unthinkable under the prior administration. France, having recently been on the receiving end of the US’ selfish policies, is likely viewed as a sympathetic balancing force by the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
As French influence in West Asia rises in parallel with American influence’s decline there, Washington will have to learn to appreciate Paris and its traditional regional partners instead of taking them for granted. Its crazed quest to “contain” China at all costs has dealt enormous self-inflicted damage to US strategy in Europe (France) and West Asia (UAE, Saudi Arabia). The voids that it’s leaving in those parts of Eurasia are being filled by France and others, with unclear long-term strategic implications.
All that can be known for sure at this time is that American policy in those strategic spaces is being complicated by a combination of the self-inflicted damage that its “Pivot to Asia” has dealt and the geopolitical opportunism of France and others. New regional orders have a credible chance of emerging, with the end result being that multipolar processes there will accelerate. This will further erode America’s declining influence in Europe and West Asia, possibly opening up new opportunities for all.