French President Francois Hollande’s Jan. 15 visit to the United Arab Emirates garnered relatively little attention, coming just four days after the start of the French military intervention in Mali. Though Hollande traveled to the UAE ostensibly to give the keynote address at the World Future Energy Summit, the trip was actually the latest move in Paris’ efforts to strengthen the two countries’ economic and strategic relationship.
Over the past five years, France has made a concerted push to boost ties with the United Arab Emirates. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy visited twice, in 2008 and 2009, and established France’s first military base outside of Africa in 50 years there. High-level bilateral exchanges now take place regularly to nurture a relationship that includes trade, energy, cultural and defense ties. With his visit, Hollande sought to pick up where Sarkozy left off.
French commercial relations with the UAE have been growing for the past two decades, and in 2011 the UAE regained its historical position as France’s main customer in the Middle East. French exports to the UAE, which tripled in value between 1998 and 2011 to $4.9 billion, now account for about one-third of French exports to the region, providing France, despite the oil it imports from the UAE, with its fourth-largest trade surplus, at $3.3 billion. Meanwhile the Emirates are France’s top Middle Eastern supplier of petroleum products, and eighth overall.