April 13, 2011 / 10:22 AM / 8 years ago

Libyan conflict brings French-Qatari ties to the fore

* France sees Qatar as diplomatic go-between

* Relations between two strongest since Sarkozy arrived

* Libya co-operation comes after Gaza, Sudan collaboration

By John Irish and Regan E. Doherty

PARIS/DOHA, April 13 (Reuters) - When Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007 he could have invited any number of Arab leaders to France for a first contact to define his stance towards the Middle East. He picked the emir of the Gulf Arab state Qatar.

The economic rationale for boosting ties was clear: Qatar is the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas, has one of the highest per capita income levels globally and is a major client of the French aerospace and arms industry.

Yet it was arguably Doha’s political role as home to the influential pan-Arab television news channel al-Jazeera, and its aspiration to act as an honest broker in the region that tweaked Sarkozy’s interest and has cemented the closeness between the two countries in the Libya crisis.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the dominant Arab power in the Gulf region, Qatar is not in thrall to the United States.

The relationship offers mutual benefits, allowing France to profit from Qatar’s considerable economic prowess and Qatar to expand its diplomatic clout, using France as a conduit.

“France always occupied a special place on Qatar’s list of priorities in Europe and it has developed a very good relationship across the board with the French political establishment,” said a senior non-Qatari Arab diplomat in Paris.

Qatar was the first Arab country to send warplanes to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, giving the French-led military campaign vital Arab political cover.

Symbolically, the French made the announcement at a joint news conference of the two countries’ defence ministers. Paris sent Mirage fighter jets to the Greek island of Crete to fly alongside the Qatari Mirages.

This week, Qatar hosts the third foreign ministers gathering of the coalition countries participating in the U.N.-mandated action in Libya — the first to be held on Arab soil following meetings in Paris and London.

Qatar’s emir has twice been guest of honour at France’s annual Bastille Day parade since 2007 and made a state visit with his francophile wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned.

She has since brought Paris-based elite management school HEC to a multi-billion dollar international education hub in Doha, the first non-English language organisation there.

A tiny peninsula jutting into the Arabian Gulf, Qatar has raised its diplomatic profile, gaining international attention with mediation attempts in numerous regional conflicts.

“They are excellent on a number of diplomatic dossiers,” said a French diplomatic source. “They provide more solutions than problems.”

In the last few years, Qatar has worked closely with the French in sponsoring peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur.

In the 2008 Gaza war, Qatari-French mediation helped secure a ceasefire, and when five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya were freed in 2007 following efforts by Sarkozy, the French leader hailed Doha’s assistance behind the scenes.

“Even if there have been disagreements, the French have never seen that as bad,” said another Arab diplomat in Paris.

“It’s just the opposite. (They see) the Qataris as the go-between ... something complementary and helpful.”

Qatar played a key role in cajoling Lebanese leaders into a political agreement in 2008 to avert the risk of a new civil war, where France had failed, although critics say the deal has tilted the balance of power in Beirut towards Iran and Syria.

Not all Doha’s diplomatic ventures have been successful. An attempt to broker reconciliation between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas foundered.

STRONG ECONOMIC TIES

The diplomatic partnership with Sarkozy has helped boost the business relationship.

On his first visit to France, the emir bought 80 Airbus EAD.PA aircraft for Qatar’s state airline and French exports to the emirate now regularly exceed 1 billion euros a year.

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund — believed to be worth about $70 billion — has snapped up key French assets, with stakes in Airbus parent EADS, energy group EDF (EDF.PA) and construction firm Vinci (SGEF.PA).

“Qatar and France do have exceedingly good relations,” said David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute office in Doha.

“In addition to signing a defence pact in 1994, France has supplied something like 80 percent of Qatar’s weaponry and are dealmakers par excellence, expertly inserting themselves into any available crevice of Qatari interest,” he said.

While Sarkozy has courted the Qataris, making four visits since taking office, more than to any other Arab state, the relationship has not always gone down well in France.

In 2008, a nephew of the emir caused controversy with an ambitious plan to refurbish a 17th century mansion in the heart of Paris, which involved demolishing part of the building. The capital’s Socialist mayor and historical committee stepped in to block the work before a compromise was reached in January.

In 2008, France passed a law granting special tax exemptions to the emir and other Qatari investors who had bought property in Paris.

A human rights group said on Monday it was organising a demonstration in front of Qatar’s embassy in Paris.

“We regret that the emir and President Sarkozy share a common taste for diplomacy that will have a catastrophic impact on France and Qatar,” the Stop the Libyan War committee said in a statement on Tuesday. (Writing by John Irish, editing by Paul Taylor)

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