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Sarkozy opens first French military base in Gulf

Abu Dhabi — President Nicolas Sarkozy formally opened France’s first military base in the Gulf on Tuesday and pushed ahead with talks to try to secure a lucrative fighter plane deal with the United Arab Emirates.

Sarkozy, on the second day of a visit to the oil-rich Gulf state, also declared that France plans to submit proposals to world leaders at the G8 summit in July to try to end oil price volatility.

France’s so-called "Peace Camp" in Abu Dhabi — the first since the end of the colonial era — was inaugurated at a ceremony attended by Sarkozy and UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahayan as the French and UAE flags were hoisted.

The base will host up to 500 troops stationed in three sites on the banks of the strategic Strait of Hormuz just across from Iran: a navy and logistical base, a desert air base with three fighter planes and a training camp.

Paris is seeking to raise its profile in the region alongside Washington and London which also have Gulf bases, and is seeking defence contracts and nuclear energy deals.

The opening of the base is widely seen as a sign of France’s tougher stance on Iran since Sarkozy took office in 2007, fuelled by concerns over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

"Through this base — the first in the Middle East — France is ready to shoulder its responsibilities to ensure stability in this strategic region," Sarkozy said in an interview with the UAE’s official WAM news agency.

The Strait of Hormuz is a vital conduit through which 40 percent of the world’s crude oil is shipped and Iran has warned it could block the waterway if it is attacked.

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.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan reported progress in talks about the possible purchase of French Rafale fighter planes, a deal that could be worth as much 6 to 8 billion euros (8 to 11 billion dollars).

"It was discussed … I can say there has been positive progress on this issue," he told AFP.

France hopes the UAE can be persuaded to replace its fleet of French Mirage 2000 combat planes with 60 new multi-role Rafale jets.

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.

France also hopes to solidify its standing in the UAE’s burgeoning nuclear market after signing a cooperation agreement last year that could pave the way for two nuclear reactors to be built.

A source from the French presidency said at least two new generation nuclear reactors could be completed in September at a cost of between 25 to 50 billion euros.

Sarkozy also said that France would make a proposal aiming to bring about oil price stability when the G8 club of rich nations holds its next summit in Italy in July.

"We all need more energy price stability,” he said. “I take responsibility in saying that high oil prices greatly destabilise the global economy. Why not devise a deal between producers and consumers to present to the market over the general price direction … a price range that encourages investment but does not shackle the consuming economies."

Prices have swung between a peak of 147 dollars a barrel in July to about 32 dollars and are now hovering around 60 dollars.

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 base has drawn some criticism at home, with centrist politician Francois Bayrou arguing it raised the risk of France being unwillingly dragged into war.

Philippe Alfroy/AFP/Expatica