Alwaght- On Monday, France and Qatar foreign ministers signed a pact for “strategic dialogue.” According to the news reports, the core of the agreement is the regional security, however expansion of partnership at various levels including trade, energy, culture, and sports, are also on the agenda.
The pact is seen by the political analysts important as the diplomatic relations of three regional states— Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain— and Egypt remain frozen with Qatar for nearly two years.
Paris-Doha alliance motivation
Regardless of the need that motivates the countries to choose foreign partners, Qatar’s picking of France for a close partnership at the present time has a variety of reasons.
Before the eruption of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Qatar, despite geopolitical limits, played a big role as a regional mediator. This allowed Doha to secure a crucial prestige in the eyes of its regional and international allies. Relations with the Israeli regime, despite no official recognition, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Palestine’s Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and hosting the biggest US regional military base and the US-Taliban negotiations are reminiscent of the diversity of the Qatari foreign policy.
But this active role deflated from 2011 to 2016. Offering unconditional support to militans fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and standing beside Saudi Arabia in its sheer antipathy to Damascus damaged the country’s foreign policy balance. But when it turned out that forces fighting the Syrian leader were losing the war, Doha intended to redefine its position.
This policy shift along with backing the Iran nuclear deal sent Riyadh into a sensitivity to Qatar political path. This caution finally drove Riyadh along with three regional allies to sever its diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017 and impose a blockade on the small Arab emirate for what it said Doha’s support for terrorism and friendly relations with Tehran. Saudi-led bloc bribed some other countries, including Libya, Senegal, Maldives, Mauritania, and Chad into following suit. They imposed an all-out sea, air, and land boycott on Qatar. They added to this a severe psychological warfare in hope of getting Doha’s policy re-harmonized with the Saudi goals and plans in the region.
The change of government in the US and rise of Donald Trump, who was inclined to back the Saudi rulers, added further pressures on the Qataris. Still, the Qatari leaders seek to save their multilateralism in the region to, regardless of the costs the political bias can bring them, walk their way to development. This motivated cooperation with France.
Relations with Paris can curb the influence of the Saudi-led sanctions and also can tell Riyadh it cannot isolate Doha. Qatar has also an eye on the French tech capabilities that will help it earn further income as a result of ramped-up energy exports. The French oil giant Total has been engaged in the Qatari energy sector since 1936, nearly three decades before the Arab state’s independence. Qatar’s North Dome gas filed, containing 21 percent of the global and 99 percent of the country’s gas reserves, gives this partnership profound significance. Re-imposition of the US embargo on Iran energy sector which forced the foreign investment companies out of the Iranian projects gives Qatar a golden opportunity to expand output of its gas fields. The “strategic dialogue” with France helps Qatar bring to fruition its designs.
Yet another reason that urges Qataris to expand ties with France is a will to secure new military partner and protector. The Washington-Riyadh relations over the past months— brought closer than ever by shared postures over Iran, Syria, and Iraq— pushed Qatar into the suspicion that as the regional developments unfold, Washington may decide to cut its commitment to Doha protection. France, the world’s third largest military equipment exporter with a veto right at the United Nations Security Council, can fill the American vacuum for Qatar. The March 2018 contract to deliver 36 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter jets to Qatar bears witness to this growing partnership.
France’s drives for expanding Qatar ties
For the France, Qatar is a source of wealth. The huge Qatari incomes over the past years and Doha's willingness to further fill its arms storehouses is found tempting by the French leaders.
France, which declined to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to reports provided by the European rights organizations about the Saudi crimes in Yemen using the French-supplied ammunition, apparently does not want to lose a chance to find a new buyer as wealthy as Qatar for its arms.
Presence in the oil and gas sectors is another motivation. A long history of Total presence in Qatar energy sector gives Paris a premium position over others in the Arab state's projects. The French oil giant in August last year abandoned a lucrative oil and gas project in Iran and of course needs to reverse the damages through Qatar projects.
Yet another reason for France rests in its leaders' strategy to boost their West Asia role. Although Trump, contrary to his predecessor Barack Obama who adopted “pivot to East” policy, does not want to leave the region altogether, France can use the loopholes provided by a growing US re-focus from West Asia to East Asia to get a toehold in the Persian Gulf.
Partnership boost in military, security, and energy areas for the two countries faces challenges, however. At present, Saudi Arabia is the largest French arms buyer. If Qatar’s orders reach a level bothersome to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh may decide to cut orders. So, France needs to make a balance here.
Furthermore, due to massive US companies’ presence in the Qatari energy projects, Paris may face negative reaction from Washington. American companies presently operate 14 major oil and gas projects in Qatar.
Another challenge is Washington’s response to Paris plans to play a role in the region. The Persian Gulf is now the key global energy supply line and powers race for domination.
Moreover, Doha, in compliance with its 1992 defense pact with the US remains loyal to Washington as an Arab states security guarantor. So, despite all the considerations, the host of the largest US regional military base does not risk its own politico-security protection. Maintaining relations with the US provides Qatar with deterrent factor in the face of its regional rivals. But beefing up ties with Paris will strengthen Doha’s bargaining power and multi-faceted policy in the face of hostile Arab states.