With the defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the mainstream media is focussing on the growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the next big showdown in the region. The tension is apparently mounting daily especially on account of reports of covert contacts between Israelis and Saudis over shared concerns on the Iran “threat”.
Furthermore, extra-regional powers are wading into the dispute with a view to bolstering their own strategic position. France has been the most active of late, as demonstrated by President Emmanuel Macron’s surprise visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month.
Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia at a time of not only heightened regional tensions over Lebanon and Yemen, but also significant political upheaval inside the Kingdom, inevitably creates the impression of the French siding with the new Saudi strongman Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Outside meddling has been the bane of Middle Eastern stability for over a century. Macron’s intervention, apparently exploiting a gap in American leadership, is the latest example of the negative influence of Western powers on regional stability.
The French intervention risks emboldening Mohammad bin Salman to pursue his destabilising regional policy. Furthermore, at minimum, the French intervention makes it more difficult for Iran and Saudi Arabia to find a partial accommodation in the short term.
The French have a history of acting tough in the Middle East, as demonstrated by their imperial legacy in Egypt and the Levant. More recently the French have demonstrated a propensity to talk tough and even threaten war, especially when they detect an absence of U.S. leadership.
For example, back in September 2007, when the Iranian nuclear dispute was intensifying, then French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner caused a big stir by warning of “war” short of a speedy diplomatic resolution. As it turned out no war broke out, but Kouchner’s extremist position (which outflanked even the most hawkish voices in the US) betrayed the French establishment’s nostalgia for colonial-style ultimatums.
In the context of the security, defence and strategic arrangements of the Gulf, the French occupy an important position by virtue of their military presence in the United Arab Emirates. Whilst France’s so-called “Peace Camp” in Abu Dhabi was established in May 2009, recently it has gained greater prominence, as evidenced by Macron’s visit to the military base earlier this month.
In terms of policy, whilst the French military presence, and the broader French strategic posture, can be considered as part of a wider Western position, nevertheless at certain critical moments the French have been known to dissent from the American and British line. The best recent example was France’s stalwart opposition to the US and British led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
On the recent escalation of regional tensions, prompted in large part by Saudi Arabia’s forceful intervention in Lebanese politics (by forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign), there is a clear gap between the French and American positions.
Whilst the US warned against interference in Lebanese politics, at minimum the French have created the perception of a tilt toward the Saudi position. This is certainly how the Iranians view the development, with the foreign ministry in Tehran decrying French “bias” in the regional stand-off.
It is difficult not to detect a whiff of French opportunism and duplicity in Macron’s apparent affirmation of Mohmmad bin Salman’s aggressive leadership style. By exploiting growing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, France may be hoping to capitalise on the strategic, economic and commercial dividends.
France is a major arms exporter to the region, and a continual state of tensions is conducive to sustaining major arms contracts with the Gulf states, and in particular with Saudi Arabia. In this sphere too, France may be hoping to exploit a void in US leadership, effectively playing on Riyadh’s fears of not being able to rely on strong US military support in the long term.
Compared with the British and the Americans, the French have relatively little experience in managing tensions and conflicts in the Gulf arena. The French colonial heritage in the region was mostly confined to Egypt and the Levant. The risk is that a greater French role in regional affairs may be destabilising, in part owing to lack of experience, but also due to potential French over-reach and miscalculations.
In the immediate term, it is not unreasonable to claim that the French position, as demonstrated by Macron’s cordial meeting with Mohammad bin Salman, is deliberately designed to scupper a partial Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, or failing that at least a more effective management of bilateral disputes.
France’s unhelpful intervention is unfolding against a backdrop of bilateral efforts to lower tensions, as demonstrated by high-level Iranian and Saudi statements of a clear desire to avoid war. The statements by the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers reflect the positions of both countries’ diplomatic and national security establishments. For example, a former senior Iranian diplomat explains in painstaking analytical detail both Tehran’s and Riyadh’s capacity to resolve differences through negotiations.
This analysis chimes with broader expert-level assessment of bilateral tensions, with Iranian strategists clearly accepting that Mohammad bin Salman will succeed in consolidating his leadership. The implication is clear: Tehran will have to come to terms with a new Saudi regime that is both relatively modernist at home (in terms of a shift away from religious conservatism) and strident at the regional level.
Underscoring a commitment to diplomacy, Iranian strategists are confident that the Islamic Republic can manage the unpredictability of the new Saudi leadership and by extension control the instability flowing from Riyadh’s policy choices.
It remains to be seen whether France, and other Western powers, will give Iran and Saudi Arabia the space to resolve their differences.