Mounting pressure on Saudi Arabia over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi might account for Mohammed bin Zayed's decision to cancel Paris visit
On 15 October, Mohammed bin Zayed, known as "MBZ", crown prince of Abu Dhabi and supreme vice commander of the Emirati Armed Forces, was scheduled to arrive in Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. The visit was cancelled a few days earlier.
The French presidency said in a statement that Paris and Abu Dhabi were working to set a new date for the visit, without providing the reasons why the UAE's vice president cancelled it.
Both Macron and MBZ had in fact already met, first in Paris in June 2017, a month and a half after Macron’s swearing in, and then in Abu Dhabi in November of last year for the inauguration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Strong bilateral relations
The visits underscore the strong bilateral relations between France and the UAE. With $5.17bn worth of exports to the Emirates in 2017, the UAE is France's second-largest trading partner in the Gulf, according to French treasury department numbers; bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia stands at $9.8bn.
Mohammed bin Zayed is more than just a friend to France
Furthermore, recent arms deals signed with the Emirates should lead to reinforced cooperation between the two nations. The UAE has purchased two corvette-class Gowinds developed by France’s Naval Group, and a French naval air station has been based in Abu Dhabi since 2009.
Cordial bilateral relations aside, the Emirati leaders are in a tight spot, as their principal Gulf ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, is looking increasingly isolated.
The UAE must undoubtedly be feeling the heat over the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who disappeared on 2 October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish investigative teams claim the Washington Post columnist was murdered by a Saudi hit squad.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared on Tuesday 2 October after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul (AP)
With accusations against Riyadh piling up, and governments across Europe (including Paris) demanding explanations, UAE officials are determined to stand up for their powerful neighbour. The mounting tensions could conceivably account for MBZ’s cancelled trip to Paris.
On Thursday, France pulled its finance minister out of a Saudi investment conference in response to Khashoggi's unexplained disappearance.
But Mohammed bin Zayed is more than just a friend to France. The crown prince is a key figure of the "Axis of Moderation" – which could rightly be called the "Axis of Order and Counter-Revolution” – spearheaded by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Moreover, he is behind the modernisation efforts of the UAE army that began in the early 1990s.
The alliance between the Emirates and Saudi Arabia is further cemented by what appears to be a personal bond. MBZ is thought to be a mentor to the younger crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though we mustn’t forget the two leaders' many common strategic interests: containing Iran, defeating the Muslim Brotherhood, and shaping the future of the Gulf region with the generous support of the United States.
The elimination of dissidents in exile is nothing new in the Arab world: Mehdi Ben Barka was killed in France in 1965, and Musa Sadr disappeared in Libya in 1978. However, this latest case confirms the existence of a new balance of power in the region
Following the example of the US president, Donald Trump, the strategy of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis often comes across as brutal and arrogant. The kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, a year ago in Saudi Arabia, is a case in point.
In his columns for the Washington Post, Khashoggi was prone to criticise the fundamental premises of Saudi foreign policy and, for that matter, readily defended the Muslim Brotherhood and demanded an end to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
The elimination of dissidents in exile is nothing new in the Arab world: Morocco's Mehdi Ben Barka was killed in France in 1965, and Lebanon's Musa Sadr disappeared in Libya in 1978. However, this latest case confirms the existence of a new balance of power in the region.
UAE's Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan chatting with Donald Trump at summit in Riyadh, 21 May 2017 (AFP)
Indeed, the respite in Syria together with near-unanimous opposition to the Islamic State (IS) has led to the emergence of three distinct axes: the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo axis (though Sisi’s Egypt shows less hostility to the Syrian regime), the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, known as the "Resistance Axis", and the Ankara-Doha axis, which could also be called the "Islamic-reform axis".
In the wake of the victory of the "Axis of Resistance" in Syria, in which Moscow played a critical part, differences between the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi alliance and the Ankara-Doha alliance have come to the fore.
Along with its US bodyguard, its Saudi counsellor and its French ami, Abu Dhabi can rely on another partner of choice: Russia
Thus do the Saudis and their Emirate allies find themselves confronting a twofold threat: suspected agents of change (neither country welcomed the Arab Spring in 2011), and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.
Standing up to Turkey, isolating Qatar, waging a war in Yemen (in the name of the fight against Iran), and weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon is a tall order, even with Washington's backing. Moreover, Washington is counting on the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis to push through its "deal of the century" to "settle" the Palestinian question in favour of Israel.
Abu Dhabi's proactive foreign policy
Abu Dhabi does not simply endorse good relations with Riyadh. In recent years, the UAE has revealed political and military ambitions beyond the Gulf. Faced with Turkey, and what has been called the "Islamic reform axis", Mohammed bin Zayed has embarked on a battle taking him well beyond the Emirati borders, from Libya to the Horn of Africa.
The Emiratis have French-made Mirage 2000 aircraft stationed at a base in Eritrea (Assab). The Turks have a military base in Somalia. In Libya, Turkey and Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood in Misrata, whereas their UAE and Egyptian adversaries back Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
France refuses to take sides in the conflict, maintaining cordial relations despite the imposed isolation of Qatar by its Gulf state neighbours. Qatar, it so happens, is a regular purchaser of French arms.
However, considering the terrorist threat menacing the Sahel and Libya, Paris is counting on the support of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to help finance the G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) to contain the spread of “Jihadism”.
Along with its US bodyguard, its Saudi counsellor and its French ami, Abu Dhabi can rely on another partner of choice: Russia. In recent years, the UAE has emerged as Russia’s leading economic partner in the Gulf.
From the political standpoint, the UAE and Russia share a similar law-and-order mindset (when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood in particular), and a future collaboration on the question of Yemen is not to be ruled out.
- Adlene Mohammedi, PhD in Geopolitics and specialist of Russian policy in the Arab world, is the president of Araprism, a website and organisation dedicated to the Middle East and North Africa. He also works on issues of sovereignty and current practices in international law. You can follow him on Twitter: @AdleneMo
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Middle East Eye editorial policy.
This article has been translated from the French version by Heather Allen.
Photo: French president Emmanuel Macron and the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed at the Élysée Palace, 21 June 2017 (AFP).