The Emirates and France: Beyond the 80 Rafale…

The reputation for the quality of French military aviation production is well established. Purely national or in collaboration, the aircraft “Made in France” have been flying among many other cockades in South America, Asia and the Middle East for more than sixty years.

Emirati acquisitions, confirmation of military power

The first order to supply military aircraft to the Emirates dates back to the 1970s, practically when the state was founded. It involved the acquisition of around thirty Mirage 5s in four versions. This aircraft was the cheapest Mach 2 military aircraft on the market at the time. Proof that you have to have a very good product to be able to export it well.

This first phase of the partnership in military aviation was followed by a second phase with the acquisition in 1998 of 68 Mirage 2000, which would be upgraded to the highest standard in 2000-9, almost twenty years later, for more than 400 million euros. The recent acquisition of 80 units of Rafale F-4 is therefore on a very long road of trust, industrial, military and governmental.

Cooperation in military aviation, while exemplary, is not the only armament component that the Emirates and France have opted for. In chronological order, in 1993 is the signing of the very important land armaments contract, which includes the acquisition of 390 Leclerc tanks and 46 repair shops, ie 21 billion francs at the time, upgradable to more than 6 billion euros, value in 2021. Three years after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates had made the decision to acquire a modern military land power by turning to France and rejecting American and German offers. They also offered this equipment their only success, precious, for export.

The third component, the naval armament, should be opened in 2017, with the intention since then to acquire 2 Gowind corvettes from the Naval Group for an amount of 750 million euros. The Emirates and France have therefore decided to seal a real and global armaments cooperation over time. This shared and visible strategic vision naturally has less visible roots.

Military and strategic relations with France

Such a process takes time, and therefore contemporary history must be integrated. At its inception, the Emirates had Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan as its leader, father of the current ruler, Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The founder of the United Arab Emirates had great admiration for General de Gaulle, who refounded France with the Fifth Republic. This very human and personal element undoubtedly formed the invisible but also very strong basis of the relations between France, an ancient nation, and this young Gulf state, which embarked on an amazing adventure. This invisible but very qualitative thread would lead to the signing of a strategic military agreement between the two countries in 1995, more than 20 years after the general’s death. France undertook to intervene with its armed forces in the event of military aggression against the Emirates.

Here we have the concrete and central element that explains the path taken since then by the two States in the civil and military space sphere with communication and observation satellites.

This obligation would, of course, result in the deployment of French forces on Emirates territory. The presence of French soldiers, announced by President Sarkozy in 2008, was confirmed the following year, in May 2009, with the inauguration of the facilities at the Al Dhafra base. This presence is also strategic from a regional point of view, near Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia… The arc of crises in the Middle East. This facility represents the only base that France has opened outside the metropolitan area in 50 years and completes our presence in Djibouti.

In the Emirates, our armed forces are organized around three locations, the air base in Al Dhafra, the naval base in Abu Dhabi and a ground presence in the military town of Zayed, around a squadron of tanks.

This force of more than 700 men is commanded by a general officer who is also in charge of the Indian Ocean marine zone. They, of course, conduct joint training operations with their Emirati counterparts.

This regional strategic vision is of course shared by the Emirates, which have pursued a particularly dynamic regional and international diplomatic strategy in recent years.

The political influence of the Emirates

Although the “Abraham Accords” cannot be regarded as a triggering element, it should be noted that Emirati diplomacy has been particularly active in this context and since then. The establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel was accompanied by important diplomatic initiatives.

The Emirates brought recognition to the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara by deciding to open a consulate there. Apart from this strengthening of ties with Morocco, Abu Dhabi has shown surprising and very new diplomatic and economic initiatives with Syria and Turkey. These two countries actually represent decisions in their respective national policies that are not in line with those of the Emirates.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime was only able to hold its ground with powerful help from Iran. However, Tehran’s policies in its regional options, in Syria as in Yemen, are in complete contrast to those of the Emirates, not to mention nuclear power. Regarding Turkey, President Erdogan’s proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood organization is again at odds with Abu Dhabi’s political decisions.

However, the Emirates have just signed economic and thus political commitments with Syria and Turkey. The visit of the head of Emirati diplomacy to Damascus on November 9 is part of a desire to normalize relations with Bashar El-Assad’s regime. A contract was signed for the construction of a 300 MW photovoltaic power plant. But isn’t it really about taking Syria step by step out of Iran’s orbit?

15 days later, on November 24, the President of the Emirates, received by Recep Erdogan in Ankara, announced the establishment of a EUR 9 billion investment fund to support Turkey’s economy and the signing of ten contracts. Although the content of the agreements has not been disclosed, the Emirati news agency WAM has spoken out “strategic investments” in sectors such as logistics, health, nutrition and energy.

To these investment and development initiatives we can add the construction of photovoltaic power plants in Jordan and Iraq, all decided this year.

By linking all this information, a real diplomatic and economic plan emerges. In the broadest sense, it will give the Emirates even greater regional political influence in the coming years.

But the regional framework could prove to be a bit too narrow even in the broader context, because the United Arab Emirates wants to act in the international and global framework.

A global opening to the world

This openness began a few years ago through the culture of the world and again in the company of France. The opening of the Abu Dhabi Louvre was the beginning of an incredible adventure. France projected its image and cultural treasures to the world there, and the Emirates ensured this transmission. The Louvre in Abu Dhabi was presented as “Universal Museum” intended at its inauguration “Fight Against Obscurantism”, in the words of President Macron. Universal program.

Another inauguration, that of the “Dubai 2020” world exhibition a few weeks ago, is therefore part of the world opening desired by this country of 10 million people at the end of the Arabian Peninsula. . “Connecting minds, building the future” is the theme chosen for this exhibition, a truly universal vision.

Three weeks ago, an Emirati national was elected president of Interpol after three years on the board and in charge of the Asia region. Another opening to the world, this time to international bodies.

It may seem inappropriate to mention the Emirates’ internal development in its societal dimensions. But these new legal provisions steer a little more towards the universal through successive keys, mores and attitudes… Last year changes were made to the Islamic laws on alcohol and the criminalization of “honor crimes”… On November 27th the Emirates resigned announced the largest legal reform in its history, with more than 40 new laws and regulations coming into force by January 2022. These innovations affect trade as well as personal security, drugs, the protection of women and servants. These legal decisions will allow foreigners not to be subjected to Islamic Sharia courts in matters such as marriage, divorce or inheritance. “These changes are intended to keep pace with the development of the UAE and reflect the future aspirations of the country”in the words of Emirates News Agency.

can we be clearer The message is that this country is indeed on a gradual path towards social modernization and that path will continue. This expansion of individual freedoms expresses the country’s desire to converge towards international living standards in order to attract more and more tourists and investors and to consolidate its economic and strategic position in the Middle East and beyond.

The special and far-reaching relationship that France and the Emirates have maintained for 50 years has undoubtedly contributed to this development. The Rafale contract is part of it, but it is an element in a larger whole.


Gérard Vespierre, ISC Paris graduate, Masters in Management, DEA in Finance, Paris Dauphine, founder of the web magazine: