By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
PARIS, May 26 -- France inaugurated its first military base in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, underlining an ambition to help meet the strategic challenge from Iran and capture a share of the region's rich arms market for the French defense industry.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a one-day visit to the United Arab Emirates' capital, formally opened a 900-foot quay allocated to the French navy in Abu Dhabi's Zayed Port, a French air force installation at the Dhafra Air Base just outside the city and a barracks at a downtown military camp for several hundred French soldiers.
The outposts are France's first permanent overseas military installations outside its former colonies in Africa in 50 years, reflecting a shift in national security strategy in which Sarkozy has put less emphasis on traditional African allies and more on the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In addition to being sources of oil and potential markets for French technology, these areas are key to France's security and that of the world, Sarkozy declared in a white paper on national security soon after assuming power in 2007.
The decision to look beyond Africa also fits Sarkozy's desire to be a more active strategic partner of the United States. He has increased the number and combat role of French troops in Afghanistan, for instance, and in March returned France to NATO's integrated military command after a 43-year absence.
The Abu Dhabi base, he said, illustrates "the responsibilities that France, as a world power, intends to assume alongside its special partners in a region that is a nerve center for the entire world," news agencies reported.
As part of the new base arrangements, Sarkozy signed agreements with Abu Dhabi's rulers updating defense accords that date from 1975, essentially pledging France's assistance to Abu Dhabi during crises. These accords have taken on new importance as Iran, on the other side of the Gulf, rises as a regional power and pursues a nuclear research program that many experts think could lead to nuclear weapons within several years.
In an interview with local journalists, Sarkozy reiterated that it would be "unacceptable" for Iran to acquire a nuclear arsenal. He urged intensification of U.S. and European efforts to draw Iran into negotiations on limiting its nuclear program.
As part of its commitment to Abu Dhabi, France has been negotiating for months on the sale of 60 Rafale warplanes. The aircraft, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, has been on the market for more than a decade, but only the French military has bought it.
Dassault's chief executive, Charles Edelstenne, accompanied Sarkozy to inaugurate the military facilities, as did two members of the Dassault family. But French officials said no sale is likely to be announced yet, as negotiations are underway on the price, estimated to be as high as $8 billion, and what kind of radar and other equipment the planes would carry.
The main competitor is the F-16, a U.S.-manufactured workhorse that has been sold around the world. But Abu Dhabi's rulers have shown a desire to diversify their military suppliers, previously buying 380 Leclerc tanks and about 60 Mirage 2000 warplanes from France. In all, French officials told reporters, France has supplied about half the UAE military's equipment.
In addition to military sales, French officials have been seeking to interest the United Arab Emirates in nuclear electricity plants.