Nicolas Sarkozy today opened France's first permanent military base in the Gulf region, in a symbolic move to show his new tough line on Iran and to compete with Britain and the US for military and commercial influence in the area.
The Abu Dhabi base in the United Arab Emirates is the first foreign military installation built by France for 50 years and its first ever base outside French or African soil. It is a landmark in the long-running repositioning of French foreign policy ? recently accelerated by Sarkozy ? to shift geopolitical concerns away from an emphasis on Africa and further east towards the Arab world.
It is the first time that France has installed a military operation in a country where it has never been colonial master. The base, dubbed Peace Camp, was built in record time ? less than 18 months. Its 500 troops and major naval and air operations will safeguard shipping lanes and reinforce the fight against piracy off the Somalian coast, but primarily send a warning message to Iran, which Sarkozy has taken a new tough stance over in recent years, heightened by concerns over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Tehran bristled last year when France announced it was building the camp 220km (137 miles) from the Iranian coast. At today's inauguration in the Emirates, Sarkozy said the base was the beginning of a long-term French engagement in the region, and not a question of "targeting" a particular country but safeguarding France's "friends" in the Emirates. He told the official Emirates news agency WAM that France was on the Emirates' side if its security was ever threatened. "Through this base, the first in the Middle East, France is ready to shoulder its responsibilities to ensure stability in this strategic region," he said.
Opposition to the base in France has included centrist leader Francois Bayrou, who said France risked being dragged into war in the region.
The US remains the major foreign military presence in the Gulf with key air bases, logistics operations and the headquarters of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. But Elysee officials on Sarkozy's two-day visit to the region said that the French base would allow France to act in case of attacks in the region.
Sarkozy's visit to the Emirates combined his trademark double role as statesman and salesman. Flanked by ministers and business leaders, he was also seeking to raise France's commercial profile in the Emirates, the world's third-largest oil exporter, and win key defence contracts and nuclear energy deals. The UAE is already a faithful buyer of French arms ? now Sarkozy is pressuring its leadership to sign a ?6bn to ?8bn deal to purchase French Rafale fighter jets, which are yet to find a foreign buyer anywhere in the world. He also wants to secure French contracts for two major civil nuclear reactors in the region. But in both cases deals are far from being signed and there is heavy competition from the US.
When France expands its international sphere of influence culture is always a major factor. Today Sarkozy also officially launched the opening of building works on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an unprecedented project to build a museum and loan works from French museums to the Gulf state. The museum, competing with a neighbouring Guggenheim outpost, is expected to be finished in 2012 or 2013. The Sorbonne university has already cemented Gulf links and France is heavily investing in cultural initiatives on French language-teaching in the region.