French base in Abu Dhabi seeks exemption from Sharia law
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The French military base in Abu Dhabi has been hailed as a historic first in a region of strategic importance. But the question of whether Sharia laws should apply on it has left French and Emirati officials bogged down in frantic negotiations.
Dubbed the “Peace Camp,” the French military base is situated in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE (United Arab Emirates). In terms of geopolitical real estate, the French military could not have secured a more strategic site: the base lies on the banks of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, through which 40 percent of the region’s oil shipments pass. More critically, across the narrow waterway lies Iran, a country that has expressed its strong disapproval over the French military presence in its backyard.
But a year after its much celebrated inauguration, a problem seems to have arisen between the French military officials and their new hosts, one that is still being frantically resolved.
On Wednesday, the leading French daily, Le Monde, reported that intense negotiations between French and Abu Dhabi officials were underway to ensure that Abu Dhabi laws, essentially Islamic or Sharia laws, do not apply to French military personnel and their families stationed on the base.
In a report titled “Abu Dhabi base: France confronts the application of Sharia law,” the paper noted that Sharia provides for the death penalty, which is banned in France and other EU countries. More generally, the report noted, Sharia law comprises a range of penalties “inconsistent with (French) republican principles”.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, French Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire downplayed the sensitivities of the negotiations. He noted that France and Abu Dhabi currently have a defense agreement which was signed in 1995.
According to Teisseire, given the high level of defense cooperation and deals between the two countries, the 15-year-old agreement, he said, needed an update. He also expressed confidence that the two countries would arrive at a negotiated deal.
France and the UAE, the world’s third-largest oil exporter, have extensive mutual defense and business interests. The UAE in recent times has been diversifying its military suppliers and the Gulf nation also plans to build a number of nuclear reactors to meet its growing energy diversification needs. French defense groups, as well as Areva, the French nuclear reactor maker, are vying for key UAE contracts.
First French base in the Mideast
With their negotiations over the Abu Dhabi military base camp, French military officials, in many ways, are entering unchartered waters.
The base, located at three sites on the outskirts of the Abu Dhabi city of Port Zayed, is the first French permanent military base to be opened in 50 years. It is also France’s first military base in the Middle East. All of France’s other overseas military bases are in former French colonies in Africa.
When it comes to France’s business and defense interests in its former African colonies, the rules – or the lack thereof – have been characterized by what the French call Françafrique, a term used to refer to the sort of opaque, backroom network of personal, business and political links that have traditionally marked French-African policies.
Half-a-century ago, the application of French law on its African bases was a given.
In the case of the US, which has extensive bases in the area referred to as “Centcom” (Central Command) by the Pentagon, US Defense officials sign a Status of Forces Agreement, called SOFA, with host governments. SOFA stipulates that US military personnel are subject to US military justice, according to John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a US-based defense and intelligence site.
SOFA came under heavy criticism following the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a Japanese girl by three US military officials.
But US military orders on various bases, according to Pike, also change with local customs and cultures. During the 1990 Gulf War, for example, female US military officials could not leave the Prince Sultan base in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, without an abaya, or all-enveloping female garb. Alcohol is prohibited on many US bases in the Mideast and some bases have strict night curfews.
It remains to be seen if the French, who pride themselves on their uncompromising adherence to the French way of life, can strike the requisite compromises in their new base in the Mideast and whether the negotiated compromise will be conducted transparently, indicating a clear break from the old French way of doing defense business.