French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday will make a rare appearance for a foreign head of state when he attends a summit of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council amid regional expectations that France could upstage the United States by formally agreeing to act as security guarantor for Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Hollande arrived in the region Thursday to attend the signing of a $7.1 billion contract for GCC member Qatar to purchase of 24 French-built Dassault Rafale fighter jets and missiles. Qatar has committed 10 older French Mirage warplanes to the Saudi-led military coalition fighting rebels in Yemen.
“There is the strong possibility Paris will agree to act as a security guarantor for the GCC. Increasingly, France's security interests in North Africa and the (Persian) Gulf region fit nicely with GCC interests,” said Theodore Karasik, a Saudi-focused analyst based in the UAE.
Analysts said the timing of the meeting is significant: it comes ahead of talks between President Barack Obama and the six GCC heads of state at Camp David on May 14, and amid deep GCC unease on a potential deal Iran and the so-called P5 + 1 group of countries over Iran’s nuclear program.
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The possibility of the United States developing a working relationship with Iran has drawn demands from the GCC for the U.S. to sign a pact guaranteeing the Gulf monarchies’ security.
Last month, Obama said in published interviews that the United States would protect the Gulf Arab monarchies from external aggression, but that it is unlikely to make a formal commitment because it lacks one with Israel, its closest Middle East ally.
“That this meeting is occurring before the Camp David talks is significant. Paris is speaking with positive words to GCC ears, while America shouts ‘Iran,’ ” Karasik said.
France stands to benefit hugely from GCC largesse by committing to act as its security guarantor in the region.
The military contract signed with Qatar is similar to a deal for 24 Rafales signed in February with Egypt, a member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that’s been largely dependent on GCC donations to stabilize its economy since July 2013, when the military overthrew the elected Islamist administration of President Mohammed Morsi.
Similarly, France last month restarted talks with the United Arab Emirates for the sale of 60 Rafales, worth up to $11 billion, to replace its existing fleet of Mirage 2000-9 warplanes, specialist U.S. publication Defense News has reported.
The U.S. criticized the UAE last August for using the French warplanes in air strikes against Islamist militants in Libya, launched from air bases in neighboring Egypt; the UAE denied carrying out the attacks.
Since 2009, the UAE has hosted a French military base, the only overseas French military facility currently in operation, opened specifically to counter the threat of military aggression by Iran. The so-called “Peace Camp” in Abu Dhabi includes bases for French naval ships and warplanes, and 500 troops.
The U.S. Navy 5th Fleet is based in nearby Bahrain, while the U.S. military's Central Command for operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East is based Qatar. It also operates drones, spy planes and air force fighters from an air base in the UAE.
Only two other heads of state, South African President Nelson Mandela in 1998 and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007, have attended GCC summits.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Hollande would be the first foreign head of state invited to a GCC summit.