The Emirati-French Arms Deal Demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s Strategic Independence

Analytics

Mon, 06-12-2021 02:27 PM, Aden

Andrew Korypko

The United Arab Emirate (UAE) and France just clinched a €16 billion deal over the weekend for 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes and 12 Airbus combat helicopters during President Macron’s visit to the Gulf country. This represents Paris’ largest arms deal to date after its nominal American and British allies poached its €31 billion nuclear sub deal with Australia in late September when they unveiled their trilateral AUKUS alliance against China. The Western European Great Power has since sought to replace its lost revenue through recent arms deals with Croatia, Greece, and of course the UAE. 

This latest agreement is about much more than the simple pursuit of profit, however, since it represents a significant shift in the regional geostrategic alignment. America’s “Pivot to Asia” that it began accelerating in recent years in its attempt to “contain” China in the Asia-Pacific has occurred at the expense of its traditional West Asian allies. The US-led order in the Gulf is cracking as America increasingly neglects the region in which it used to exert unparalleled influence due to its new obsession with pushing back against the People’s Republic in the Eastern and Southeastern part of Eurasia. 

This has seen the US reinitiate nuclear negotiations with Iran, much to the concern of its traditional Gulf allies and Israel, as well as increasingly criticize the countries involved in the Yemeni War. Both of these have adversely affected American-Emirati relations. In particular, the former Trump Administration’s $23 billion deal to sell the UAE cutting-edge F-35s has been mired in uncertainty since Joe Biden took office and vowed to review all of his predecessor’s agreements. Despite reaffirming its commitment to this deal last month, observers are worried that it’ll remain politicized and uncertain. 

That’s because the US has arguably begun to exert unprecedented pressure on its traditional regional allies as one of the primary consequences connected to its gradual disengagement from West Asian affairs throughout the course of its ongoing “Pivot to Asia” against China. The Biden Administration’s surprising politicization of the Yemeni War means that the former Trump Administration’s deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE can no longer be taken for granted, especially since they might be bargained away behind closed doors during the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations. 

It’s with this in mind that the UAE decided to buy France’s Rafale warplanes just in case its traditional American ally proves itself to be unreliable by reneging on the Trump Administration’s prior deal or at the very least indefinitely delaying it for political reasons connected to the earlier mentioned factors. Unlike Washington, Paris isn’t interested in politicizing its arms exports. It keenly understands that it can expand its regional influence in the wake of the US’ gradual disengagement from the Gulf through “military diplomacy” and thus fill the strategic void that Washington has dangerously left. 

As for Abu Dhabi, it’s showing the world that it won’t ever let events beyond its control risk endangering the country’s strategic independence. The UAE cannot be dependent on Washington’s political whims to ensure its regional security. Its leadership will always pragmatically balance its partnerships in such a way that its own interests are advanced, albeit without infringing on those of others. In this context, clinching such a major arms deal with France is a friendly way to balance the US since both countries are NATO partners so nobody should interpret this as an unfriendly move by Abu Dhabi. 

The larger geostrategic implications of this deal are that the UAE has defended its strategic independence in parallel with France expanding its regional influence through the sale of high-quality arms. Both outcomes were directly made possible by the regional uncertainty connected to the US’ “Pivot to Asia” that’s occurring at the expense of the US-led order in the Gulf, which also involves Washington’s newfound willingness to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Tehran. In such a situation, it’s natural for countries like the UAE, France, and others to respond as needed to ensure their interests. 

The takeaway is that France is aiming to replace America’s declining influence in the Gulf while the UAE continues to maintain its strategic independence despite challenging circumstances in the region. The existing US-led order in the Gulf is gradually giving way to a new order in which everyone will be compelled to adapt. Paris has shown that it’s a reliable arms partner, unlike Washington, which can make all the difference in terms of shaping the order that’ll emerge as the US disengages from West Asia. 

Andrew Korypko
a Moscow-based American political analyst

- "The opinions expressed in this article "reflect the opinion of the author"
- File: AFP

United Arab Emirate France Rafale USA