ANALYSIS - UAE-France alignment against Turkey bound to backfire

Macron’s anti-Islamic rhetoric comes back at him, reveals French post-colonialism no longer influential in Middle East

Numan Aygen and Mehmet Rakipoglu   | 09.11.2020
ANALYSIS - UAE-France alignment against Turkey bound to backfire FILE PHOTO

*Numan Aygen, who studied Arabic and Islamic sciences in Damascus, is currently a graduate student in the Department of Global Politics and International Relations at Bahcesehir University.

**Mehmet Rakipoglu is a research assistant in the International Relations Department of Batman University. He is also pursuing a doctoral degree at Sakarya University’s Middle East Institute.


The strategic doctrine of the US during the Obama era has changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Washington did not regard the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific only as a regional development. On the contrary, the US realized the challenging aspect of China’s increasing economic power with regard to the global system, and in this context, the US prioritized the fight against China during the Obama period, giving only second place to the Middle East. While the aforementioned state of affairs deepened the security concerns of US allies, it also created a power vacuum on a regional scale. This policy led the local actors to take on more responsibilities regarding security, paved the way for the UAE to assume a more active role, and also enabled France to try and carve itself a stronger position in the new order about to be established in the region by filling the gap stemming from the new US strategy of palming its responsibilities off on others. Hence, the UAE and France have come to act together on a common ground created as a consequence of this US strategy.

On the other hand, France, which traditionally competes with Germany in the European Union (EU) and thinks differently on certain issues, wants to change its status globally. The Middle East is of great significance to France in this respect as well. French President Macron’s viewing of the recent explosion of huge magnitude in Lebanon as an opportunity in this regard and his efforts to project influence in regional politics by employing France’s “soft-power” tools could also be interpreted in this manner. But there stand two major obstacles in the way of Paris: the first is the nations of the region, and the second is the strong winds blowing in Middle Eastern streets in favor of Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The strong reaction of the people in the Middle East against Macron’s statements about Islam and the Prophet reveals that France cannot gain any real influence in the region with its postcolonial mentality. Indeed, Turkey’s solidarity with the people in the region, and President Erdogan’s immense popularity in the Arab street are derailing France’s political ambitions. At this point, the UAE takes the stage as an actor likely to enable France to exert influence in the Middle East again. We can safely observe that anti-Turkey sentiments are one of the areas of cooperation between the UAE and France.

French foreign policy under Macron, who is accused by the opposition of a lack of experience and poor leadership skills, is becoming more and more deeply embroiled in disputes with some of its NATO allies, and not least with Turkey. The French support for the UAE, which has been providing support to the notorious putschist General Haftar’s militias in Libya, as well as the agreements the two countries have sealed, have served to escalate the crisis with Turkey. This constitutes the major reason behind the convergence and alignment of France and the UAE in opposition to Turkey in the Middle East. The alignment, which had started with the British withdrawal from the region in 1968, has intensified recently. On June 3, they held the 12th session of their annual “Strategic Dialogue” meetings. At the meeting, senior officials from the Abu Dhabi and Paris administrations expressed their desire to strengthen bilateral relations and approved a 10-year roadmap they charted in order to “deepen the strategic partnership”.

Anti-Turkey notion of the France-UAE partnership

France sees the UAE as an important source of investment, trade and energy. Additionally, the UAE is home to France’s first permanent military base in the Gulf, where a large number of French soldiers are stationed as per an agreement signed in 1995. Inaugurated in 2009, the base enables France to respond militarily in the event of an attack against the UAE. Apart from this, the existence of the military base enables the French defense industry to break into the Middle Eastern market, which facilitates France’s colonial activities in Africa. This base has elevated the relations between the two countries to a new level in the field of security. France sold a total of 4.7-billion-euro-worth of weapons to the UAE between 2010 and 2019, the 1.5-billion part of the sales taking place in 2019 alone. Paris wants to achieve multiple ends through these arms sales to Abu Dhabi, the primary one being thriving economically. The second is to strengthen the UAE in order to thwart the growing strong, challenging anti-status quo tendencies so they are not allowed to develop into a new regional order, and to achieve this without taking on major responsibilities across the Middle East. And the third is to become a new active military power to reckon with that will fill the void left in the region by the US.

After the Arab uprisings in 2011, relations between the UAE and France gained momentum to such an extent that began to threaten to further destabilize the region. The prospect of the region’s democratization alarmed the UAE, an authoritarian Middle Eastern regime, as well as France, which considers any sweeping democratization that is likely to pose challenges beyond its control as a threat. The actors duly defined the Islamic actors with political agendas and regional dynamics as “extremist Islamic forces”. Macron sees Abu Dhabi and Riyadh as significant partners of France’s anti-Islamic policies in the Middle East that it carries out under the guise of “fighting extremism”. Thereby, as France-UAE alignment continues to develop within the framework of this bilateral partnership, their relations with Turkey are plunging into a deeper crisis with each passing day. Consequently, the people in the region and Turkey’s regional activities and policies in the Middle East are threatened by the French-Emirati duo, which support Greece in the complex and contentious maritime border and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) dispute, and back the putschist Haftar in Libya, and the terrorist PKK/PYD in Syria.

Abu Dhabi and Paris support Haftar against Turkey

France and the UAE began supporting Haftar in early 2014. It was revealed that the French government gave support to Haftar’s “Western Libya Campaign” in April 2019, which aimed to take control of Tripoli and overthrow the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). While the UAE provided the required air support by equipping Haftar’s mercenary army with military equipment, armored vehicles, defense systems and assault drones, France’s contribution to Hafter’s enterprise came in the form of intelligence, special forces and a number of advanced weapons. Haftar openly praised the support from France towards the end of 2019. However, more war crimes were committed against civilians as a result of the civil war, fueled also by the support of the other elements in Libya.

Efforts of UAE and France in Eastern Mediterranean

One of the points that needs to be addressed regarding the energy resources around the region is the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline Project, popularly known as “Eastmed”. Eastmed will be connecting Israel to the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (GASC), and therefrom to Greece, transporting natural gas to all of Europe, and primarily to Italy. The agreement, as is, involved extracting natural gas from the energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean region of Turkey. The agreement as it stands this way is sought to exclude Turkey out of the energy resources in the East Mediterranean. When the EastMed Gas Forum was established by Southern Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Palestine in April 2019, the mentioned parties completely excluded Turkey from the agreement. Seven months later, the UAE, Greece and Southern Cyprus held the first tripartite meeting, and soon afterwards, France requested to participate in the forum as a permanent observer.

Turkey’s intervention in Libya and failure of UAE-France alignment

Turkey’s historical and religious bonds with Libya, the war crimes committed in Libya, the policies of France and the UAE aimed at exploiting the region, and all the atrocities committed against the democratically elected government of Libya, namely the GNA, constituted the chief reasons for Turkey's intervention in Libya. Besides, Turkey’s intervention, which took place upon the invitation of Libya, has already begun to be effective with regards to the equitable distribution of the recently discovered natural gas and the other energy resources between those who are the rightful recipients, and not between a bunch of colonialists.

Ankara signed an agreement to delineate its maritime borders with the Libyan GNA in November 2019 as a response to the anti-Turkey alliance that emerged in the East Mediterranean with the aim to confine Turkey within a tiny coastal strip. A certain portion of Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction areas has been determined through this agreement. Libya gave the GNA substantial support in its apparent fight against the putschist Haftar, but in truth, in its real fight against France and the UAE, which are seeking to become new powers in the region. As a result of Turkey’s determined and decisive fight, the maritime jurisdiction zone designated by the agreement with Libya was recognized and registered by the United Nations as well. Turkey has thus, with a very strong voice, come to the very table from which concerted efforts were exerted to keep it away. In conclusion, as France and the UAE have failed in their plans against Turkey, the corridor between Israel and Greece has been shut by an international agreement recognized by the UN, reducing Israel to a position where it has to obtain Turkey’s approval in order to export gas.

Reasons behind anti-Turkey rhetoric

Turkey, as a rising military and technologic power in the Middle East, is perceived as a threat by the Western powers since it stands with the oppressed peoples of the region by opening its borders, is loved by Muslim nations and regarded as the primary representative of the Muslims in world. A recent statement by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan points to this deliberately constructed fear: “Turkey aims to establish a Turkish empire. Don’t be surprised if they expand not only in the Greek Islands but also towards the continental Europe. Once Turkey accomplishes these, expect them around the skirts of Vienna.”

We can say that the anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish rhetoric that has emerged as a consequence of Turkey’s increasing influence in the region and powerful foreign policy stems from the fear that Islam and Muslims might have started to return to their authentic identities. President Erdogan has recently referred to this fear by saying that in the eyes of a Westerner, “a Muslim is a Turk, and a Turk is a Muslim”. This fear pushes the different actors in the region to seek alternative, controllable, obsequious and servile partners from among the Muslims. With France becoming closer with the UAE in its quest to find such a partner, Turkey is adamantly continuing its activities in the region and holding onto its determined foreign policy stance.

Current situation 

Macron’s latest statements of solidarity with Armenia and his accusation of Azerbaijan and Turkey about the recent conflict, and moreover, his latest speeches in which he targeted Islam and Turkey and which stoked Islamophobia have drastically escalated the crisis. We can now anticipate a deeper crisis between Paris and Ankara with Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine emboldened by Macron’s attitude, now publishing cartoons that attack Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, soon after publishing derogatory cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammad. In the meantime, Muslims have strongly reacted to the anti-Islamic rhetoric of Macron and to the images drawn abusing “freedom of expression” merely as a cover. The only Muslim country that received Macron’s statements warmly is the UAE. In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, the UAE's Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, said that Macron's statements should be carefully heeded; Gargash openly advocated this mindset, which equates Islam with terrorism. And what is worse, Gargash accused Erdogan of attacking France by instrumentalizing religion as a political tool.

The UAE is the only Muslim country that supports the anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish rhetoric employed by France. France’s attitude has resulted in calls in many Muslim countries for boycotting French products throughout the Islamic world, and protests were held in many countries, particularly in Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Just as Saudi Arabia’s semi-official boycott caused the people of Saudi Arabia to look out for Turkish products more than ever, the enmity against Turkey that the UAE and France have been trying to build and inculcate in the people of the region will also prove fruitless. In other words, French and Emirati efforts to breed hostility against Turkey are bound to backfire in the Arab street and are only helping to increase Turkey’s influence.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Abdullah Enes Gungordu in Ankara

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