Macron’s Arab strategy will be on display in Algiers and Doha

French president has positioned himself as the foremost mediator in the Middle East

 French president Emmanuel Macron: France has sold €12 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia over the past decade, and €8 billion worth to Qatar. The sale of up to a dozen more Rafale fighter jets may be announced in Doha. Photograph:  Charles Platiau/EPA

French president Emmanuel Macron: France has sold €12 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia over the past decade, and €8 billion worth to Qatar. The sale of up to a dozen more Rafale fighter jets may be announced in Doha. Photograph: Charles Platiau/EPA

 

French president Emmanuel Macron will travel to Algiers on Wednesday, then fly on to the Qatari capital Doha. The two countries are at opposite ends of the Arab world in terms of wealth and geography but they illustrate the French leader’s priorities in the Arab world.

Macron’s foreign policy is largely based on his personal rapport with other leaders. He has attempted to trace a median line between feuding Iranians and Saudis, Gulf monarchies, Kurds and Iraqis and Libyan warlords. By positioning himself as the foremost mediator in the Middle East, he increases French influence throughout the world.

Macron places high priority on fighting radical jihadism, at the expense of human rights if need be, for example in Egypt and Algeria. France shares lists of Saudi and Qatari organisations and individuals suspected of supporting Islamic State and al-Qaeda with Saudi and Qatari leaders. Macron’s anti-terrorism co-ordinator, Pierre de Bousquet, will accompany him to Qatar.

France’s economic interests are also foremost in Macron’s mind. France has sold €12 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia over the past decade, and €8 billion worth to Qatar. The sale of up to a dozen more Rafale fighter jets may be announced in Doha.

The strength of our diplomacy is our capacity to talk to everyone  -  Emmanuel Macron

Macron wants France to regain its status as Algeria’s leading trade partner, which it lost to China in 2014. Wednesday’s visit is meant to concentrate on economic co-operation, particularly in the automobile, pharmaceutical and agri-industry sectors.

On a trip to Algiers last February, as a presidential candidate, Macron said France had committed “crimes against humanity” during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence. “The president used very strong words in February,” an adviser said. “Now we must turn the page to build a new relationship, in particular with Algerian youth.”

Macron will nonetheless lay a wreath at the monument to “martyrs” killed by the French. He is expected to announce the repatriation of skulls of Algerians who fought the French, and which were until now kept in the anthropological Musée de l’Homme in Paris. He will visit President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a relic of the independence era who has been incapacitated by a stroke since 2013.

Ruffled feathers

Macron has shown himself adept at smoothing ruffled feathers in the Gulf and the Levant too. He recently persuaded Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to allow the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, who was under a form of house arrest in Riyadh, to return to Beirut via Paris.

Bin Salman felt that Hariri was too complacent towards the Iranian-backed Shia Muslim Hizbullah, who share power in Lebanon. Hariri on Tuesday definitively rescinded his resignation. He credits Macron with having “played a historic role” in defusing that crisis.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain declared an embargo on Qatar last June, accusing it of being too close to Shia Iran. “The president has spoken with the Emir, Sheik Tamim [al-Thani of Qatar], many, many times,” said an adviser to Macron. “The dialogue has been constant, with the French demonstrating the will to act as a friend to the countries of the region, and a force for calm and balance.”

Referring to the Qatari crisis in his annual speech to French ambassadors at the end of August, Macron said it was “indispensable that we be able to talk to all parties . . . Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective allies is an unspoken element of the crisis . . . We cannot accept the interpretation that one must chose between Shia and Sunni, that one must choose a camp.”

Sectarian lines

Two blocs now dominate the Middle East. They cross sectarian lines. Qatar is Sunni. So is Turkey, but it is increasingly in league with Shia Iran, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Syria. The US and Israel support the Sunnis, who are led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Tehran has baulked at Macron’s attempts to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities 

Macron warned in the same speech that “other great powers have apparently made this choice recently. I am convinced it’s an error. The strength of our diplomacy is our capacity to talk to everyone”.

Some observers fear Macron may be sucked into the US-Saudi-Israeli axis. Macron differs with them regarding the Iranian nuclear accord, which he wants to preserve at all costs. But Tehran has baulked at Macron’s attempts to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities, albeit outside that accord. And Tehran takes a dim view of Macron’s apparently warm relations with the US, Saudi and Israeli leaders. Macron’s visit to Tehran has been postponed indefinitely.

Macron has until now largely ignored the Palestinian question. As reported by the New York Times, a US, Saudi and Israeli attempt to force through a still uncertain “peace initiative” that is regarded as grossly unfair by Palestinians could be the first real test of Macron’s Middle East mettle.

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