It is now clear that France is seeking to fill the void created by the gradual demise of America’s influence in the Middle East and North Africa.
With Emmanuel Macron at the helm, French foreign policy is becoming increasingly at odds with certain fellow NATO allies, especially Turkey. Libya is also proving to be a salient example, as France has dangerously deferred to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on numerous foreign policy issues, catalyzing the current crisis in French-Turkish relations.
Meanwhile, Paris and Abu Dhabi’s anti-Turkish postures in the Middle East are drawing the two powers together. On June 3, France and UAE held the 12th iteration of their bilateral Strategic Dialogue. During the meeting, high-ranking officials from Abu Dhabi and Paris expressed their desire to further strengthen bilateral relations, endorsing a 10-year roadmap intending to deepen their strategic partnership.
France sees the UAE as an important source of investment, trade, and energy. Abu Dhabi hosts France’s first permanent military base in the Gulf, allowing the French defense sector to reap massive benefits from Paris’s relationship with the Emirates. In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, France’s ties with UAE gained momentum as Abu Dhabi and Paris share an affinity for autocratic, strong man Middle Eastern regimes that can repress the rise of radical Islamism. Here, Macron considers Abu Dhabi and Riyadh important partners in the struggle against extremism.
However, relations between the France-UAE duet and Turkey seem to have reached rock-bottom. Primarily, Paris and Abu Dhabi have supported Greece in its standoff with Ankara over the convoluted maritime demarcation of exclusive economic zones, and the duet’s sponsorship of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya and the Peoples’ Protect Units (YPG) in Syria has threatened Turkish interests across the region. Macron’s recent controversial speech on Islam is set to further plague relations between Paris and Ankara, especially after he expressed solidarity with Armenia and blamed Azerbaijan and Turkey for the recent outbreak of the conflict with Yerevan.
The idea of an authoritarian strongman ruling Libya resonated well in Paris and Abu Dhabi, which both began supporting Haftar as early as 2014. In April 2019, Paris surreptitiously backed Haftar’s “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” campaign, which aimed to overthrow the North African country’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). While the UAE bought Haftar an army of mercenaries, provided him with military equipment, armored vehicles, defense systems, assault drones, and air support, France contributed intelligence, special forces, and some sophisticated weapons. At the end of 2019, Haftar praised the French support publicly. However, backing the Libyan warlord resulted in fueling the war, war crimes against civilians, and Turkish intervention on behalf of the GNA.
Eastern Mediterranean energy politics drives Turkish involvement in Libya. Turkey’s leadership is concerned about missing opportunities to exploit the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas wealth. Notably, the proposed East Med pipeline project (a 2015 natural gas agreement between Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy) would circumvent Turkey and jockey it out of the Eastern Mediterranean energy market. Coupled with Egypt’s recent discoveries of natural gas and plans to turn itself into a regional energy hub, Turkey’s neighbors have blunted its aspirations to become a Mediterranean energy power.
In April 2019, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine agreed to establish the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo and deliberately excluding Turkey. Seven months later, the UAE held its first trilateral meeting with Greece and Cyprus and, soon after, France requested to join the forum as a permanent observer. Each action appears to balance Turkish activities and aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean energy.
Reacting to this emerging anti-Turkey coalition in the East Mediterranean and its efforts to isolate Turkey in a thin coastal strip, Ankara signed a maritime demarcation deal with the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya in November 2019 that would necessitate Turkish involvement in the EastMed project. In return, Turkey committed resolutely to support the GNA in its battle against Haftar.
Turkish support has decisively tipped the civil war in the GNA’s favor, invalidating years of French and Emirati investment in Haftar and prompting Abu Dhabi and Paris to augment their anti-Turkish efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Under its state-owned enterprise DP World, the UAE has placed a bid to operate Israel’s Haifa port, potentially opening up an energy avenue that could circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. Using this new energy outlet, Abu Dhabi could finance the very expensive EastMed gas pipeline, also exporting Emirati gas, that would further inhibit Turkish energy ambitions.
While the UAE focuses on infrastructure, France has rallied the European Union (EU) around increased naval vigilance towards Turkey under the banner of defending their ally, Greece. However, concealed in this rally cry for European solidarity is a choking off of Turkish support to the GNA and a tacit endorsement of the UAE. Increased naval monitoring of Turkey would sever Turkish naval supply lines for the GNA while allowing the UAE to continue its airlifts, reifying the balance of power towards Haftar in Libya. Although France has largely ceased its direct support for Haftar, Macron could be using the EU and the UAE as vessels to surreptitiously advance French foreign policy goals.
While the Libyan conflict persists, Russia has also found a client in Haftar, using him to further the doctrine of establishing Mediterranean ports to deter potential Western advances into the Bosphorus straits.Already realizing this goal at the Syrian port of Tartus, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now inching down the Mediterranean, using the private military company, Wagner group, to further Russian influence in a power vacuum and explore the feasibility of a port at Benghazi. The UAE and France’s anti-Turkey effort has granted Russia a foothold in Libya, seen by many in the West as a long-run security threat to Europe.
Although the France-UAE duet has not yet hindered Turkish action, it has helped further destabilize the region, fueling the Libyan conflict, and increasing the risks of confrontation. With both Turkey and its neighbors striving to relegate the other’s position in Mediterranean energy politics, and the U.S. remaining largely quiet concerning the tension, whether the duet’s regional policies will dampen Turkey’s posture in the region remains to be seen.