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France opens Gulf military base

  • Story Highlights
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy opens military base in United Arab Emirates
  • Base can accommodate troops, jets and most of France's navy ships
  • France is ready to shoulder its responsibilities
  • Iran previously said it was not pleased at the French presence
By Caroline Faraj
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Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) -- France established Tuesday its first strategic foothold in the Gulf, when President Nicolas Sarkozy opened a French military base in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

The new military presence, named the 'Peace Camp', will accommodate up to 500 French troops, and comprises a French facility at the Emirates' Al Dhafra air base.

It can accommodate Mirage and Rafale jets and includes a naval base of about 20 acres at the port of Mina Zayed, which can handle any French naval vessel except aircraft carriers.

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There is also an army camp at Zayed, specializing in urban combat training, according to sources close to the government of UAE.

"Through this base -- the first in the Middle East -- France is ready to shoulder its responsibilities to ensure stability in this strategic region," said President Sarkozy.

The Gulf is of geopolitical importance both because of its gas and oil resources and because of its proximity to Iran.

Iranian authorities did not comment Tuesday but has previously voiced displeasure at the new French presence.

Sarkozy, in an interview with the UAE's official news agency WAM, described the base as a "concrete and strong testimony of our desire to stand, whatever might happen, at the side of the United Arab Emirates."

"The permanent French military installation in Abu Dhabi shows the responsibility that France, as a global power, agrees to assume with its closest partners, in a region that is a fault line for the whole world," Sarkozy said.

Analysts described the new French base, as "small in size but an important step."

"Today France manage to break the United States' long monopoly to the Gulf region, which is important for the whole world," Mustafa Al'alani, from the Dubai based, Gulf Research Center.

He added that the base Peace Camp gives France a strategic position on the vital Gulf shipping corridor, which carries about 40 percent of the world's petroleum supplies, and therefore, must be protected."

The U.S. maintains the predominant foreign military presence in the Gulf, with key air bases and logistics operations, and its Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain.

U.S. officials were not reachable for comment Tuesday, but Fifth Fleet senior officials told CNN.com Arabic last year that they welcomed the step, and described it as an extra hand in combating piracy.

The base is France's first new overseas outpost since the end of its colonial era 50 years ago and is small compared with its installation at Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden.

Djibouti remains the base for French warships on anti-piracy patrols. Paris and Abu Dhabi also updated bilateral defense accords that were signed in 1991 and 1995.

Officials would not confirm their talks included the possible sale of 60 new Rafale jets to the UAE in a deal worth up to $11 billion. One senior UAE official said: "We always discuss with friends possible deals, and France is on the top of the list."

The multi-role Rafale -- which has yet to find a foreign buyer -- could replace the Emirates' fleet of French Mirage 2000 combat planes.

Sarkozy also discussed oil prices with the UAE officials - saying: "Why don't we agree, producer countries and consumers, on general price guidelines to give to the market? I would say even a price range which would guarantee investments over the long term but which would not overwhelm consumer economies."

The other agreement signed Tuesday by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Emirati counterpart "outlines a cooperation framework for the assessment and possible use of nuclear energy for peaceful ends," WAM said.

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