France took an ambitious step into the cauldron of Gulf politics yesterday, opening a military base, or "peace camp", in Abu Dhabi.
The naval and air station - the first French military base to be built abroad in half a century - is intended to make France a serious player in the previously "Anglo-Saxon" game of Gulf security and the military containment of Iran.
The base, formally opened by President Nicolas Sarkozy, may also improve France's chances of selling military hardware to the United Arab Emirates, starting with 63 Rafale jet fighters. During his visit, President Sarkozy dug the first spade of sand for the foundations of an Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre museum, part of a drive to promote French culture, and cultural exports, in the Middle East.
Although the military base has been declared to be part of France's contribution to the fight against Indian Ocean pirates, its real importance is diplomatic and strategic. "France is showing that it is ready to assume its responsibilities in guaranteeing the stability of a region vital to the entire world," M. Sarkozy told the Emirates news agency, Wam.
President Sarkozy believes the presence of 467 French soldiers, sailers and airmen in "Camp Peace" will give France a stake in negotiations on Iranian nuclear and military ambitions. By having its own base in the region, Paris hopes to be taken more seriously not just by Teheran but by the United States.
Officially, the small French base is not aimed solely at Iran. France has made reassuring noises to Teheran, which has formally objected to any "increased foreign military presence" in the Gulf. The base has been presented as, among other things, a way of defending the Gulf oil lanes and a headquarters for French naval activities against Somali pirates.
However, officials at the Elysée Palace concede that France is "deliberately putting itself into a position of dissuasion" against an Iranian attack on the Gulf states. "If Iran was to attack, (France) would now in effect also be under attack," an Elysée spokesman said.
The base, agreed in January last year and built in 17 months, will have naval, air and training sections. No permanent French military base abroad has been built since France began to withdraw from its colonial empire in the late 1950s.
The presence in Abu Dhabi is seen by President Sarkozy as part of a radical shift of French foreign and security policy away from the independent or "multi-polar" approach taken by the former President, Jacques Chirac. Together with the decision to rejoin the military structures of Nato, the Gulf base is intended as a move towards the "Anglo-Saxon" way of looking at the world. At the same time, both moves are intended to give France a greater stake in Western decision-making.
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