France Announces Base in Persian Gulf

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Saudi Prince Salman, brother of King Abdullah, hold traditional swords at an event at the Royal Palace in Riyadh. Sarkozy was on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Saudi Prince Salman, brother of King Abdullah, hold traditional swords at an event at the Royal Palace in Riyadh. Sarkozy was on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. (Pool Photo By Eric Feferberg Via Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

PARIS, Jan. 15 -- President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Tuesday that France would establish a military base in the United Arab Emirates, making it the only Western power other than the United States to have a permanent defense installation in the strategic Persian Gulf region.

Sarkozy signed the deal in Abu Dhabi with Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the U.A.E., describing it as "a sign to all that France is participating in the stability of this region of the world."

The base, announced at the end of a three-day visit by Sarkozy to Persian Gulf countries, is part of his effort to raise France's international and diplomatic profile.

Though small in size -- at least 400 navy, army and air force personnel -- the installation would be an important symbol for both countries.

The announcement signals a shift in the political realities and sensitivities of the region from the days of the first U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991, when most Persian Gulf countries demanded that the United States keep its bases in the region officially secret.

Sarkozy also used his visit, with stops in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to cement his alliance with the United States in demanding that Iran -- seen by many of its Persian Gulf neighbors as a growing threat -- halt its uranium enrichment program. President Bush is also in the region this week, issuing similar pointed criticism of Iran.

French officials said the U.A.E. military base, coupled with an agreement to help the Emirates build two nuclear reactors for energy production, is intended in part to warn Iran against taking aggressive steps toward any of its neighbors.

"France responds to its friends," Sarkozy told reporters after signing the military agreement. "France and the Emirates signed a reciprocal defense accord in 1995. Our friends from the Emirates asked that this accord be prolonged and asked that a base with 400 personnel be opened."

France is a major arms supplier to the U.A.E. and other Middle Eastern countries and stages regular joint military exercises with the Emirates.

In two of the largest weapons sales to the U.A.E. in recent years, France signed a $3.4 billion deal involving 63 Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft and a $3.4 billion agreement to supply 390 Leclerc tanks.

The French base will be set up in Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates, and will become operational in 2009, according to French officials. Officials declined to provide specifics of the base's operations. Abu Dhabi is just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

French Vice Adm. Jacques Mazars, who will head the project, said that in addition to the 400-plus people at the base, as many as 150 French navy personnel would be assigned to a U.A.E. naval base in Abu Dhabi, according to news service accounts from the region.

The United States has strategic military bases in many parts of the Middle East, including the Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. The British military is part of the coalition naval task force based in Bahrain and operates aircraft from a U.S. air base in Qatar.

Sarkozy also used his trip to solidify other ties. He extended agreements in the U.A.E. for economic, education and cultural projects and signed new accords on transportation and intellectual property rights.

Both the French and U.S. presidents cautioned the petroleum-producing states about the high price of oil, currently around $90 per barrel, and urged them to raise production to help bring down prices.

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