ABU DHABI // The French president Nicolas Sarkozy opened a military base here yesterday in a ceremony at Mina Zayed Port attended by dozens of Emirati naval officers. The base, the only foreign French military installation outside Africa, is intended to facilitate the training of French troops for desert warfare and demonstrate France's commitment to the defence of the UAE amid simmering tension with Iran.
"We're close friends, sincerely united to change the world and to face also the dangers of the world," said Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister. Later in the day, Mr Sarkozy opened the air force section, at Al Dhafra Air Base, accompanied by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The ceremony included a fly-past by a number of Mirage and Rafale fighter jets. The army section of the base would be opened within a month, French officials said.
The base, known as Camp Peace, symbolises France's growing presence in the Gulf and its burgeoning relationship with the UAE, which is in advanced talks with Paris to buy 60 Rafale jets to replace its existing fleet of Mirage 2000-9s. France has been involved in joint military exercises with the UAE, and the base, which will house about 500 troops, is simply an outgrowth of the military co-operation agreement that has bound the two countries since 1995, Mr Sarkozy said.
Yesterday, two French military vessels were docked at the base. Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, noted that the UAE would now fall under "the French nuclear umbrella". He said Mr Sarkozy's assurance to the UAE that France would come to its defence "no matter what" was pronounced in unusually strong language. Mr Kouchner said the Americans had been aware of the French project, and he discounted the notion that France wanted to challenge British and US influence in the region.
"We're very close friends with the Americans," he said. "This is a common attitude, facing tension and risks. This base is not against the Americans, not at all." Rear Admiral Ahmed al Tunaiji, chief of the UAE's naval forces, said it was natural for the UAE to ask the French to build the base given its "neutral approach" to foreign policy. "It's not a matter of diversification," he said. "The UAE is an open country with a strategy that is based on avoiding taking sides."
Dr Karasik said the base would bring many benefits to the UAE through more sustained joint training and exercises, intelligence sharing and reconnaissance. Admiral Pierre François Forissier, head of the French navy, said between 200 and 400 French soldiers would come to the UAE every few months. Dr Mustafa Alani, director of security at the Gulf Research Centre, said the French military presence in the UAE was mutually beneficial.
"For France," he said, "they have a number of military facilities in Africa, they have this sort of strategy of military presence. For the UAE it's to multiply options. You can't depend on a single power. You must encourage other powers to be in the region." Dr Alani argued further that France's presence would bolster its standing in the region. "The base is a forward observation post, politically and militarily," he said, adding that since the French are physically present, "the region will take them seriously and they will take the region seriously."
Although the size of the base is relatively small in terms of troop numbers and equipment, its presence will increase the speed of deploying French troops in the region. The base will permit French naval vessels to frequent the Gulf more often for rearmament and supplies. At least a half-dozen of the advanced Rafale fighter jets are expected to be there. Most important, analysts say, will be the training of French troops in a harsh desert environment.
In the long run, French officials hope, this will ensure a significant number of the French military will be familiar with the region's terrain. firstname.lastname@example.org