What distinguishes great powers like France is their sense of history and their profound understanding of the temporality of historical experience – or how their past, present and future are thought to be connected in their international diplomacy.
That is why the AUKUS pact among the US, the UK and Australia was a catastrophic mistake. Australia can be forgiven for being an inconsequential third-tier nation, but the US and Britain should have known that France would duly settle scores when the time came.
And it has come, in the most unexpected way, as French President Emmanuel Macron hit the Anglo-Saxon axis in West Asia where it hurts most: in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Macron wrapped up a diplomatic coup of mammoth proportions in securing a US$19 billion contract for 80 French-made Rafale fighter jets, the biggest international order ever made for the warplanes, during a visit to the UAE last Friday.
The arms deal includes 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters. The deal will directly support 7,000 jobs in France and guarantee the supply chain of Dassault Aviation until the end of 2031, a French official told journalists. Shares in Dassault Aviation SA, the Rafale’s maker, rose more than 9%.
Yet this is much more than a “standalone” business deal. Macron has tapped the impatience in the Emirati mind over US President Joe Biden’s hesitancy in approving an F-35 deal amid concerns about the UAE’s relationship with China, including the prevalence of Huawei 5G (fifth-generation wireless telecom) technology in the country.
The Biden administration is sitting on the UAE’s F-35 stealth fighter deal that formed something of an adjunct to the so-called Abraham Accords on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Emirates, which gave former president Donald Trump a foreign-policy triumph in West Asia in the final days of his term in office.
US caveat brushed aside
In April, a US State Department spokesman said about the $23 billion deal: “We can confirm that the administration intends to move forward with these proposed defense sales to the UAE, even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations before, during and after delivery …
“We anticipate a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE to [ensure] any defense transfers meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable and more capable security partnership.”
The Biden administration added a caveat that the UAE must roll back its robust ties with China and impose restrictions on where, and under what circumstances, the F-35s can be used.
Plainly put, the UAE will pay a fortune to buy the F-35, but its usage will be under American control and, second, it may not even be the most advanced version of the newly developed fighter aircraft (which Israel got).
If the UAE leadership felt humiliated, it didn’t show its feelings. But the new thinking in the UAE’s regional policies lately speaks for itself. The Rafale deal can be compared to Turkey’s deal with Russia for S-400 missiles after the US prevarication over Ankara’s interest in Patriot missiles. The UAE too has turned away from the US to other sources for the purchase of advanced weaponry, without strings attached.
France has weakened the US pressure tactic. Amid the Gulf Arab states’ growing uncertainty about the United States’ focus on the region, the Élysée Palace said in a statement: “This contract cements a strategic partnership that is stronger than ever and directly contributes to regional stability.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Sunday. The State Department readout said they “discussed important regional matters, reaffirmed their countries’ strong partnership and discussed ways to broaden and deepen their wide-ranging cooperation.”
Truly, Blinken has egg on his face. Within a couple of weeks or so of his initiative to form an exclusive West Asian grouping (dubbed “Quad.2”) with Israel, the Emirates and India, lo and behold, the UAE has moved in a contrarian direction toward normalizing with Syria, Turkey and Iran (all of which are not on speaking terms with the US and/or Israel).
Biden’s snub comes with consequences
By the way, the rulers of Syria, Turkey, Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia also have something special in common: All five have been excluded from Biden’s guest list of 110 invitees to his “Summit for Democracy” on Thursday and Friday.
Biden’s snub must be hurting. With only days to go before Biden’s summit, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is also the brother of the crown prince, arrived in Tehran on Monday at the invitation of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Tehran Times reported: “Enhancing mutual ties and sharing views on the latest developments in the region are among the main objectives of the top UAE security official’s visit to Tehran.”
Of course, the AUKUS pact killed a much bigger deal involving the sale of 12 diesel-powered French submarines to Australia worth $36.5 billion. But for Macron, the Rafale deal with the UAE may be only the beginning with more surprises to follow.
From Abu Dhabi, Macron headed for Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The symbolism was overpowering. Macron became the first major Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia and meet with MBS since he was implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi three years ago.
“Prince Mohammed received Macron at a royal palace in Jeddah, where they shared a long handshake. Saudi media and influencers swiftly disseminated a photograph of the two men smiling and walking side by side,” Bloomberg reported.
An alternative to the US?
While cementing France’s position in the Arab Gulf region, Macron is also signaling that France can serve as an alternative to the US in West Asia amid growing talk among Gulf states on easing their reliance on Washington. He discussed with MBS an initiative to resolve the political crisis in Lebanon.
Biden entered the White House condemning Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state over human rights abuses and vowed that he wouldn’t deal with the crown prince.
But Washington has lately begun backtracking, realizing the imperative to engage with Riyadh on many of their policy goals, especially the energy markets. A White House delegation traveled to Riyadh last week on the eve of the OPEC+ meeting on Thursday seeking more oil supply to cool prices that have fed inflation in the US.
With Macron on the prowl, Biden is coming under pressure to swallow his pride and speak with the Saudi crown prince, who is the de facto ruler. That may be the ultimate price he has to pay for the AUKUS betrayal meted out to France.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.