The French military base that Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated yesterday in Abu Dhabi is overshadowing other, softer dimensions of the French presence in the UAE.
An unmistakable symbol of a growing strategic partnership
The base, known as Camp Peace, stands out as the best evidence of the elevation of UAE-French relations to an enduring strategic partnership.
The three parts of the base - the navy facility at Mina Zayed Port, the air force base at Al Dhafra and the training camp for ground forces at a location yet to be disclosed - will house several hundred troops, mostly on a rotating basis, and host visiting ships and Rafale jet fighters, the technological jewel of the French air force.
The purpose of the three facilities is mainly logistical and administrative. Since French forces are deployed in the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan, a forward base in the UAE helps France - a country with a history of projecting force - support its operations in these theatres. But they will also promote better and more frequent interaction, including joint exercises, with the UAE armed forces and help build a special relationship between the two militaries.
In itself, the French base will not alter the existing balance of power in the Gulf. Iran still fields the largest military in the neighbourhood, and is making a substantial investment in its unconventional and missile capabilities. The Gulf states continue to acquire hi-tech weaponry and modernise their forces, spending together 7.5 times as much as Iran on defence. And with large bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE, the US remains the most powerful external actor in the region - certainly the only one able to defend its Arab allies on its own.
Mr Sarkozy was adamant that the decision to open the base was not motivated by a single set of threats but rather derived from the growing importance of the Gulf as a global security concern. His comments were meant to assuage Iranian anxieties that foreign military bases in the Gulf are aimed at Iran. But it is undeniable that Iranian sabre-rattling in recent years and the sense that the US security umbrella has lost credibility following the Iraq war have prompted the Gulf states to further internationalise their security and seek special ties with interested major powers.
Indeed, it is more useful to think of the French venture as adding a layer of international protection to the existing security architecture.
France and the UAE are linked by a defence commitment that requires France to help the Emirates, but these bilateral obligations complement rather than contradict a western and Arab consensus about maintaining the status quo in the Gulf.
According to French officials, the Abu Dhabi naval base will not have a primary role in fighting piracy, at least for the moment. The French base in Djibouti, which is closer to the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast and better equipped, will continue to fulfil this task.
But maritime security is a major concern for the UAE. The Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the global crude oil supply circulates, remains the economic lifeline of the Gulf states and would be vulnerable to hostile action in the case of a showdown with Iran.
The role of the French base will evolve and probably expand as the security environment in the Gulf changes.
For the moment, it is better to think of it as the cherry on the cake of an ambitious and multi-dimensional French effort in the UAE rather than a decisive moment for Gulf security.