Sarkozy to open new French base in Abu Dhabi
President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to open France's first permanent military base in the Gulf on Monday, giving Paris a strategic role in a region roiled by Iran and a key supply route for oil.PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to open France's first permanent military base in the Gulf on Monday, giving Paris a strategic role in a region roiled by Iran and a key supply route for oil.
Sarkozy will be paying a visit to Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest and largest of the United Arab Emirates, to formally inaugurate the base announced in January last year.
Dubbed "Peace Camp", the base will host up to 500 troops stationed in three sites on the banks of the Strait of Hormuz, just across from Iran: a navy and logistical base, an air base with three fighter planes and a training camp.
The strategic Strait of Hormuz, which separates the UAE's neighbours Iran and Oman, is a vital conduit through which 40 percent of the world's crude oil is transported.
France will be joining Britain and the United States as the few western powers to have a permanent presence in the Gulf and "Peace Camp" is the first French base opened since the end of the colonial era.
Sarkozy reasserted in a recent interview to Diplomatie magazine that the new military presence underscored France's desire "to participate fully in the stability of this region that is essential for the world's equilibrium."
The move is widely seen as a sign of France's tougher stance on Iran since Sarkozy took office in 2007, fueled by concerns over Tehran's nuclear programme.
"We are deliberately taking a deterrent stance," said an aide to Sarkozy. "If Iran were to attack, we would effectively be attacked also."
France is a leading military supplier to the UAE, and the two countries are linked by a 1995 defence pact under which their armed forces chiefs meet once a year and their army troops conduct around 25 joint manoeuvres per year.
France has a handful of military bases mainly in Africa including its largest in Djibouti, which occupies a strategic position on the Gulf of Aden.
The new Abu Dhabi base has drawn some criticism in French political circles, with centrist politician Francois Bayrou arguing that it raised the risk of France being unwillingly dragged into war.
Sarkozy will be leading a delegation of French businessmen seeking lucrative arms and civilian nuclear deals during the visit although officials say no firm deals are expected to be signed.
France hopes the UAE can be persuaded to sign on to a deal to replace its fleet of French Mirage 2000 combat planes with 60 new multi-role Rafale jet.
France's Dassault Aviation has yet to find a foreign buyer for the Rafale, which can carry out interception and reconnaissance missions as well as nuclear strikes.
A Dassault spokesman said at the weekend that the deal for the 60 Rafales could total between EUR six and eight billion (USD eight to 11 billion) but that he did not expect the UAE to make a final decision in the coming days.
France also hopes to solidify its standing in the UAE's burgeoning nuclear market after signing a nuclear cooperation agreement last year that could pave the way for two nuclear reactors to be built there.
The chief executives of Dassault and other heavyweights of French industry -- Airbus, Bouygues, Areva and GDF Suez -- will be joining Sarkozy for the visit on Monday and Tuesday.
AFP / Philippe Alfroy / Expatica