President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the first permanent French military base in the Gulf Tuesday in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, giving Paris a presence in a geopolitically strategic location on a key global oil supply route.
At an opening ceremony attended by the visiting French president and UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the flags of France and the UAE were raised at the new military base.
Dubbed the “Peace Camp,” the base will host around 500 troops stationed on three sites on the banks of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It will include a navy base, an air base, and a training camp.
Situated between Iran to the north and the Arabian Peninsula to the south, the strait is a maritime passage for about 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments.
Reporting from Abu Dhabi, Vivian Salama said that for Paris, the location of the base in the UAE - the world's third-largest petroleum exporter - was a critical issue.
“The area has always been of major strategic importance obviously because of its simple geographic location, but also because of the oil wealth in the region,” said Salama. “The major oil wealth of the world is located right here on the shores of the Gulf countries.”
In a statement released at a maritime security conference, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan said the base was an “important pillar” of the Gulf nation’s foreign policy and hailed the cooperation between the two countries.
Eye on defence and nuclear energy contracts
The new military base also positions France to compete for lucrative defence and nuclear energy contracts in the oil-rich Gulf nation.
The UAE plans to build a number of nuclear reactors to meet an expected need for an extra 40,000 megawatts of electricity by 2017.
The French delegation visiting Abu Dhabi Tuesday includes four ministers and several businessmen.
Last year, French energy giants Total and Suez, as well as state nuclear reactor maker Areva, announced that they planned to develop more than two third-generation nuclear reactors in the UAE, according to the French government.
During his visit, Sarkozy is also expected to lobby on behalf of France's Dassault Aviation, the makers of the Rafale fighter jet. The firm is yet to find a foreign buyer for the multipurpose jet capable of interception, reconnaissance and nuclear strikes.
“The UAE wants to upgrade their military aviation fleet and could buy between 60 to a hundred Rafales, a contract worth more than 18 million euros,” said FRANCE 24’s Aurélien Colly, reporting from Abu Dhabi. “But there has been no official confirmation of a deal from Paris.”
Iran wary of new base
While the opening of the “Peace Camp” has been hailed by France and Abu Dhabi, analysts say Iran is wary of a French presence in the area.
“On the other side of the strait, there is not so much fanfare,” said Salama. “The Iranian government has expressed its staunch disapproval of the French coming here permanently to Abu Dhabi, saying that they refuse any foreign presence in the region.”
France - along with other permanent UN Security Council members such as the USA and the UK - has taken a firm stance on Iran's nuclear drive and has warned that uranium enrichment could be a cover for efforts to build an atomic bomb. Tehran however denies the charge and insists its nuclear programme is aimed purely at generating electricity for a growing population.