Nicolas Sarkozy Takes On The Gulf

Rarely have real-estate taxes revealed so much about realpolitik as in a law passed earlier this year by the French parliament. Its purpose was to create special tax exemptions for the emirs and emissaries of the rich little Gulf emirate of Qatar on the magnificent mansions they've acquired in the heart of Paris. Lest any legislator miss the reasoning behind this sweetheart deal, an appendix to the bill waxed eloquent about the "very strong" and "privileged" relations between France and Qatar, based on "the wish of the Qataris to diversify their alliances and their partnerships so as not to depend exclusively on the United States."

There is a weird echo in that wording. French President Nicolas Sarkozy presents himself as America's best friend on the continent, but that kind of solicitude to the oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf was a trademark of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Determined to stand up to the American "hyperpower," Chirac pitched France to the kings and emirs as an alternative ally for their portfolio of protectors: the Un-America, if you will. So too, Sarkozy, and there is a similar Chiraquien smell about the commercial ambitions linked to France's Gulf initiatives. Sarkozy unabashedly hopes to sell Airbuses, fighter planes and nuclear reactors to some of the few countries that can still afford them.

Yet Sarkozy differs from Chirac in at least one important respect: while Chirac's stand against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq turned into a diplomatic confrontation, Sarkozy's policy is to complement American policy in the region—especially when it seems to be stalled. He has worked closely with the United States to help isolate Iran because of its nuclear program, while being the vanguard in efforts to improve relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's shown signs he wants to come in from the cold. Sarkozy also teamed up with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to try to hammer out the ceasefire in Gaza in January. And a new French military base in Abu Dhabi, due to open as early as next month, may help facilitate NATO's expanding operations in Afghanistan.

Still, commercial interests are never far from his agenda. In February, Sarkozy became the first French president to visit Baghdad. With security improving there, the old cry of "stop the war" has given way to "let's make a deal." One of the big projects the French want is the potential multibillion-dollar makeover of the Baghdad airport.

Washington can hardly object. In the twilight years of the Bush presidency there was a realization that the United States had to work with its allies, not just dictate terms to them. And the many old pros in the Obama administration know that the price for strategic cooperation is also a degree of competition for commerce and influence—as long as everyone is moving in the same direction. For the moment, that seems to be the case. Indeed, a certain symbiotic division of labor has taken shape: the United States charting the course and France scouting the route.

One other reason for this changing dynamic is that while the U.S. has a long, almost unassailable relationship with the richest and most powerful of Gulf monarchies, the House of Saud, the French have for decades cultivated ties to the ruling family of Qatar. Those links became especially close after Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani came to power in the bloodless coup that ousted his father in 1995. Ever since, the peninsula's huge reserves of natural gas have given its native population of a few hundred thousand people the highest per capita income in the world and the country has gone on a spending spree. It has purchased 80 percent of its military equipment from France, which also helps to train its security forces. (That's the kind of relationship that tends to endure in these parts.) Paris is also due to open a branch of the famous Saint-Cyr military academy in Doha. For good measure, there's a lycée français in the works to be named after Voltaire, whose ideas about social reform and sex would seem an odd match for the local Wahhabi culture.

The links have paid off. By working closely with the Qataris, Sarkozy managed to stage one of his first big diplomatic triumphs only weeks after his election: the liberation of Bulgarian nurses who had been held for years in prison by Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi on trumped-up charges of spreading AIDS. Kaddafi was demanding an upfront payoff of some $460 million. Neither France nor the European Union would agree to what smacked of blackmail, but few players in the Middle East are as skilled as the Qataris when it comes to operating in the gray areas of secret favors. Qatar conveniently put up the money, and the nurses were freed. (As the official justification for the recent French tax law put it, Qatar "played a role that was discreet but without a doubt decisive" in that case.)

Later, when the Americans and Saudis failed to find a way to stabilize the Lebanese government after many months of political crisis, the French and the Qataris stepped in and succeeded. "There was no president [of Lebanon], there was no government, there was no parliament, and the only thing there was were bombings," Sarkozy recalled as he toured the Gulf last month. "But we found the key to the door." And it would seem to have been in the Qatari capital of Doha, which hosted the meeting where the Lebanese deal was done.

But now that relationship may be fraying. Some of Sarkozy's advisers are concerned that Qatar may have slipped too far into the Iranian orbit. After the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war, it underwrote much of the reconstruction in South Lebanon for which the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia took credit. In January, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, Qatar hosted a conference for the most radical opponents of Israel—and of the Palestinian Authority—including Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

One of Sarkozy's advisers, speaking privately, suggests that as tensions over Iran's nuclear program look likely to increase, and the possibility of Iranian retaliation against Western allies goes up as well, the Qataris are terrified they'll be at the top of Tehran's target list. Their instinct may be to accommodate rather than resist. So Sarkozy's advisers are encouraging him to do a better job diversifying French relationships in the Gulf. To that end, when he traveled through the region in February, he skipped Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which he'd visited last year in any case, and focused instead on Kuwait, Oman and Abu Dhabi. Being perfectly blunt, he told the press that "these are three countries where there are British traditions and a marked American influence and France hasn't invested in them politically or commercially for a long time." But "we're planting the seeds and we'll fight to defend our businesses and take home contracts."

Neither Sarkozy nor his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have done much to articulate the overarching strategic vision behind their activity in the region, but if one exists there are clues to understanding it in a recent book, "Beyond Terror and Martyrdom," by the scholar Gilles Kepel, who accompanied Sarkozy on both of his major trips to the Gulf. Kepel argues that Sarkozy should look for far more than fleeting diplomatic peace initiatives, lucrative arms sales and school openings. He suggests that regional stability in the greater Middle East can be fully achieved only through broad economic integration between Europe (which has the experience and diplomatic expertise), the Gulf states (which have some of the last great cash reserves in the world) and the countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean (which have burgeoning populations).

It's a grand plan, and eventually the Kepel approach may be a driving force in French policy. But it's also the kind of brilliant vision that can run afoul of countless dreary details. Consider, for instance, what's happening at the spectacular mansion known as l'Hôtel Lambert on the tip of the Île St-Louis in the very heart of Paris. Arguably there's no more historic home in the city. Voltaire himself once dwelled there, and wrote of it as "a house made for a king who would be a philosopher." Now, having been bought by a prince who is brother to the emir of Qatar for a reported €80 million, it's due for some major alterations including a new elevator to the prince's bedroom and an underground parking garage. Preservationists are up in arms, and the Qatari designs may yet be frustrated.

Will the privileged relations between Doha and Paris be affected? Probably not. But, then, the Qataris could afford to pay the taxes, too. In the highly personalized diplomacy of the Arab world, every little favor counts, and every slight is remembered. It's a subtle, sometimes unsavory game, but now that France is playing it alongside the United States instead of against it, the goal of stabilizing the Middle East may be well served.