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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 13:22 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 13:22 | SYDNEY

Sarkozy in Abu Dhabi

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28 May 2009 11:21

There has been much debate on this blog about the nature of 'soft power', and France has certainly been on the front foot in viewing culture as an essential element of its soft power. This is evidenced in Nicolas Sarkozy's current visit to Abu Dhabi, where two of the main pillars of French regional engagement are evident in the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and the soon-to-be constructed Louvre Abu Dhabi.

But a bigger announcement was the opening of France's first permanent overseas military base in 50 years. With the GCC's security underpinned by the presence of significant US air, naval and land assets in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, France can certainly afford to dub the new Abu Dhabi initiative 'Camp Peace' (juxtaposed nicely with US bases in Iraq such as Camps Victory, Slayer, Headhunter, Freedom, Liberty et al).

Elsewhere in the Gulf, France's franchising of its national institutions continues, with plans still continuing for the opening of a Doha branch of its St Cyr military academy.

This military relationship-building exercise is more about establishing a presence to further national economic goals and President Sarkozy's agenda of establishing France as a serious regional non-Anglo player in the Arab world than contributing to regional security. The Abu Dhabi base is an administrative and training centre rather than an operational base per se, and despite France's claims that it places French forces directly in harm's way in the event of Iranian military action in the region, there really is minimal risk of that happening. 

More immediately, France will be hoping that its display of a long-term commitment will reap financial rewards in both defence exports and areas such as nuclear technology— France has sought a stake in the provision of the Gulf's future nuclear power needs and has made headway in discussions with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

Choosing the UAE as the basing site illustrates a pragmatic French approach to the Gulf. The base is heavy on symbolism while remaining relatively light on substance. But it builds on increasingly close economic ties between the two countries, with exports from France tripling in the last 10 years. It also signals a buy-in of France into an area that had previously been the preserve of the US and the UK. Finally, the opening of the base provides an interesting proposition for 'soft power' skeptics such as our own Raoul Heinrichs — can the military ever be conceived as an element of soft power?

Photo by Flickr user tuexperto2008, used under a Creative Commons license.