With recent developments such as the elections in Turkey and the reintegration of Assad’s Syria into the Arab League, along with the growing ambition of key actors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to enhance their influence and global standing, it becomes crucial to comprehend the French perspective and approach towards this significant area. Denys Kolesnyk, a French consultant and analyst, discussed with Emmanuel Dupuy, a French consultant and the president of the Institute for European Perspective & Security (IPSE), the regional developments and French policies concerning the MENA region.
How would you describe the dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as France’s approach towards this important region?
First and foremost, it is important to emphasize that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region consists of two distinct regions: Maghreb and Mashriq. These two regions have different dynamics for two main reasons. Firstly, they are located on separate continents, and secondly, the actors involved in each region vary.
Starting from the eastern side and focusing on France, it is noteworthy that Paris maintains stronger relationships with North Africa compared to the Middle Eastern countries. It is crucial to recognize that the Middle East does not hold a pivotal role in France’s foreign policy. We can even say that the region has been marginalized from the French foreign policy perspective. While this may not have been the case in the past, it has become so relatively recently.
When considering the Levant, Mashriq, and the countries with which France should have significant relations, historical factors such as various treaties, including the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Franco-British agreement of 1920, come into play. In order to have a comprehensive understanding and influence in countries like Syria and Lebanon, it is essential for France to have a voice. For instance, we can mention the 1968 Agreement on trade and technical cooperation between the European Economic Community and Lebanon as an important aspect to consider.
Unfortunately, we are not the largest player when it comes to combating ISIS in the region. We were merely a part of the coalition, led by the US on one side and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the other. We had an external mission called SHAMAL, comprising over 1,500 troops engaged in fighting against the Islamists in Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. However, we were just a junior partner within the coalition.
Regarding Lebanon, President Macron clearly expressed France’s full support after the August 2020 explosion, which triggered severe economic and financial consequences. However, France made bold statements but failed to deliver on the promised assistance.
In terms of stabilizing the Israel-Palestine conflict, France has consistently advocated for a two-state solution. However, Paris has not been steadfast in pushing for this resolution.
As for Iran, there have been some developments, but France has not been actively involved. The mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran was conducted under the auspices of China, while the United States has been leading discussions in Vienna, with France only being a part of the discussion.
With regard to the relations between Israel and Türkiye, given that these two countries are trying to play a bigger role in the region as regional hegemonies, we do not have the same level of relations with the previous Israeli government. For instance, we’ve felt rather good engagement with the Government of Yair Lapid, then with Benjamin Netanyahu, who stays in his conservative approach and is aggressive towards Iran. This is what it comes to the Middle East.
When discussing North Africa, France had significant advantages due to its historical ties and centralized diplomacy towards the Arab world. Notably, three former French colonies—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—presented favorable opportunities. However, there were challenges in stabilizing Libya since 2011, which became a weak point for French diplomacy. Initially, France took a proactive approach in mediating between Tripoli and Benghazi, but this changed when Turkey became involved. Furthermore, regional players like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as external actors such as Russia, the United States, and Italy, influenced the stabilization efforts. Unfortunately, organizing the long-delayed elections, originally scheduled three years ago, has proved difficult.
In the case of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, France currently faces problems with all three countries. Tunisia is experiencing a hyper-presidential, non-democratic, populist rule, with President Kais Saied shutting down institutions, while the economic situation resembles the financial crisis in Lebanon.
Regarding Algeria and Morocco, France ideally should have pursued an integrated diplomatic approach, but instead, Paris finds itself in a competitive dynamic between Algiers and Rabat. Managing relations with Rabat risks antagonizing Algiers, and presently, France has closer ties with Algiers, as President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is scheduled for a state visit to Paris on June 16 and 17. Consequently, the situation with Rabat has become delicate and inappropriate.
These factors underscore the lack of a comprehensive French Arab policy, which should have been developed since 2008-2009 with the Union for the Mediterranean initiative. Moreover, France has prioritized relations with sub-Saharan Africa instead of he MENA region. Lastly, France finds itself competing with other actors, with Russia engaged in Middle Eastern conflicts, China positioning itself as a mediator, and the US pursuing to maintain important engagement with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
Considering the complex situation faced by France in the region, characterized by a lack of proactiveness and well-shaped policies, which countries can Paris rely on to enhance the French presence and strengthen relations in the region?
Once again, the Middle East and North Africa are two regions that are often grouped together but have fundamental differences. For instance, all Middle Eastern countries are part of the Islamic Cooperation Organization, while some belong to the Commonwealth, Francophonie, and others aspire to join BRICS or become partners or even full-fledged members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In other words, when we look at the Middle East, we see it as a complementary policy of Europe, which is no longer the case, I think. Europe is marginalized and weakened. Interesting to note that the G7 economies are now less significant than the BRICS and SCO, signifying a shift in the global power dynamics.
Regarding France, let’s examine the situation region by region. France has consistently pursued the option of prioritizing regional integration. We advocated for the United Arab Maghreb, but unfortunately, it did not succeed. We have always aimed for an integrated approach in our relations with Israel and neighboring Arab states. While we considered the stabilization of Syria, there were varying mindsets from Turkey, Israel, and Iraq, with attempts to utilize Syria as a buffer zone. However, France had a marginal role in that context. Recently, France has shifted its focus towards establishing strong partnerships with individual countries in each region, with the aim of developing broader ties throughout the region.
For example, in North Africa, Morocco was a key partner during the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. However, under Emmanuel Macron’s leadership, there has been a shift. He is following in the footsteps of Jacques Chirac, seeking to revitalize our relations with Algeria. Macron has taken significant steps to reconcile the two countries, particularly considering the historical context of the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962. It is crucial for France to deepen its engagement with Algeria and strive to achieve better ties, similar to the positive relations experienced during President Chirac’s tenure in 2003-2004.
Regarding Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, there are distinct dynamics that can be described as a counterrevolution narrative. Egypt, for instance, has undergone a series of shifts from revolution to counterrevolution and another counterrevolution. President Al-Sisi removed Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and although the human rights situation is far from being ideal, but France continues to support him. Therefore, our perception of Egypt is based on a realistic, or even “realpolitik” approach. Similar circumstances apply to Libya. In 2011, we played a role in removing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, but we failed to propose a viable alternative, resulting in a loss of influence, momentum, and legitimacy in Libya. Tunisia is also a case where we bear some responsibility. The election of Kais Saied led to a significant populist shift, and although we observed this, we lacked the capacity to overcome this development. This is one aspect to consider.
The second aspect revolves around competition, not between Paris and other regional capitals, but rather between Paris and our European partners. We are not the sole European or G7 country that wants closer ties with the North. Recently, Spain has become Morocco’s top economic partner, outpacing France. At some point Italy has surpassed us as Tunisia’s primary partner, but we managed to regain our place. China holds the position of Algeria’s leading partner, and also sidelining us in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of Egypt, we have never been its primary economic partner, although between 2013 and 2017 we were the top arms suppliers to Egypt, surpassing even the US. Since 2014, we have sold Rafale aircraft, frigates, and two helicopter carriers to Egypt, which were initially intended for Russia.
The Middle East holds over 36% of assessed world reserves of natural gas and Turkey emerges as a contender. The reelection of President Erdogan will complicate efforts to redefine the historical status quo since the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which involved the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the reconfiguration of colonial positions. This includes issues related to exclusive economic zones and Türkiye’s desire to regain what it considers part of its imperial logic. These complexities add to the difficulties France faces in assessing its mutual partnership with Turkey. While France aims to provide stability, Turkey seeks to exert leadership. These diverging objectives contribute to the challenges we encounter in our relations.
We have touched upon various countries and the respective challenges related to them. However, could you elaborate on the rivalry between France and Russia in the region?
I believe that the rivalry between France and Russia is overshadowed by the nuanced diplomatic relationships that Russia maintains with several countries, some of which also have positive relations with France. If we consider Algeria, it becomes evident that Algiers has ambitious goals, as President Tebboune expressed during discussions with President Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. This has led to a Franco-Algerian momentum that began in August and will continue with President Tebboune’s upcoming state visit to France in two weeks. A similar situation exists between Algeria and Italy. Algeria still maintains strong ties with Europe since its primary market for gas is in Europe. However, this doesn’t mean that special relations with Russia are absent, particularly in the realm of oil and gas. Gazprom, a partner of Sonatrach, the state-owned Algerian energy company, plays a role in harnessing approximately 20% of Africa’s gas reserves located in Algeria.
In general terms, there is a competition between Russia and countries that share similar connections in the discussed region. There is also a combination of cooperation and competition that has been intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Russia and Iran are placing greater emphasis on Algeria to counter the influence of countries historically and geographically linked to Algiers, such as Spain, France, and Italy. For example, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Algeria, he urged them not to sell gas to Europeans, yet Algiers went on to sell 3 million cubic meters of gas to Italy, which angered Russia’s Gazprom but the operation was carried out regardless.
As Russia is waging its war against Ukraine, and several countries considered as co-belligerents on the Ukrainian side, especially those who have provided weapons to Ukraine, Moscow has intensified its diplomatic links with Algeria. Iran, on the other hand, is growing closer to Algeria as both Tehran and Algiers seek to deter relations between the US, Israel and Morocco. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to stronger economic and diplomatic ties with Algeria. Consequently, there has been a “rapprochement” strategy between Morocco and the United States – due to security concerns, such as the Abrams agreements, on one hand, and between Algeria and Russia, on the other, in order to counterbalance and deter its foes in Maghreb.
France, meanwhile, needs to reassess its relationships with Rabat, Algiers, and Tunis, recognizing that competition exists not only between these countries and Russia but also with China. Beijing has emerged as an important player and has made significant investments in the port of Tangiers. China’s Silk Road strategy focuses on the central and western Mediterranean regions, as well as the southern shore, in terms of diversifying gas procurement, education, information technologies, and more. China has an interest in Libyan oil and Algerian gas, as well as in selling arms to those countries.
In the Mashreq region, including the Levant, China is taking on a more proactive role as a mediator. The situation is shifting away from an Anglo-Saxon post-colonial interconnection, as most of these countries were formerly British colonies. Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have transitioned towards more independent, globally oriented, and non-aligned policies. This shift is clearly articulated by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, and the new President of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. They have their own policies centered on a more assertive stance on oil and gas within OPEC and OPEC+, which has been influenced by Russia. This is evident in the KSA’s refusal to raise oil prices to pressure Russia when it comes to sanctions.
And how do you see the future of this region and France’s place in shaping regional dynamics?
I believe that the region is realizing its significance. The Middle East and North Africa are part of a broader policy that includes 54 African states and all the countries in the Middle East, which is a vague term since some argue that it extends from Syria and Lebanon to Asia or even Indonesia, encompassing countries with a political Islam agenda.
However, what is most important and aligns with what I mentioned earlier is that each of these countries maintains or seeks to maintain a non-aligned policy. It was referred to as the Third World in the 1970s, non-alignment since the 1960s, and now it is known as the Global South. Some of these countries aspire to take on leadership roles in the region, leading to tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and a disruption of diplomatic agendas between bin Salman and bin Zayed. This also explains the divergent visions concerning Iran, with its Islamic Shia ideology, and Saudi Arabia, representing Islamic Sunnis. Despite this, these countries have learned to coexist, as seen in the resolution of the opposition between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE. Syria has also been reintegrated into the Arab League after an 11-year absence, even though Bashar al-Assad’s policies have not changed.
In summary, we should acknowledge that the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) as the United States refers to it, since the Sea island G8 Summit, in June 2008, in a horizontal strategic nexus between Morocco to Israel differs from our own vision, European way of foreseeing the Mediterranean Agenda, since the 1995 Euro-Med Partnership and the Union For the Mediterranean launched in July 2008, which emphasizes a rather vertical approach to our relations with Western Mediterranean states and our foreign policy towards the Arab world, the Mediterranean, and African countries.
This was very acute during the last decade, but does not reflect the current reality anymore. The BRICS is expanding, and countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are likely to join this framework. Algeria and Egypt have also expressed interest. The Durban Summit, late August, will surely confirm this new ”Global South” agenda, that Moscow is seeking to undertake, in order to emphasize its criticism against Occidental countries. By the way, Moscow acted exactly in the same mode, as it tried to “instrumentalize” the Non alignment” during the Cold War, in the 1960, 1970 and 1980’s.
Regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Turkey is expected to be the next country to join. This shift in the SCO’s agenda, moving from oriental to occidental-oriental vision, brings about a new centrality in the region and a quest for leadership between President Erdogan, Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, and President Mohamed bin Zayed. Iran also plays a significant role in this equation, as it enhances its negotiating capacity with all these countries.
In essence, we are losing influence and control. France no longer has steadfast partners, even with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu seeks a special relationship with any face, particularly since his ties with US President Joe Biden have deteriorated. However, a change may not occur even if Biden is defeated by Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis in 2024. I am merely highlighting the worsening relations between the Democrats, Joe Biden, and Benjamin Netanyahu due to the Iranian agenda and Gulf countries. This region is no longer exclusively directed towards Washington, London, or European states.
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