By Eva Thiebaud
“We’re talking about torture; it’s extremely serious.” When the French deputy Clementine Autain raised the issue several times in parliament, she was outraged by the government’s silence.
After all, a UAE military base and secret prison were being hidden in the heart of Yemen’s gas export plant at Balhaf – a facility in which Total, with a nearly 40 percent stake, is the biggest shareholder.
At the heart of the UAE prison network in Yemen, the existence of the Balhaf jail was put on the record by the UN in September 2019. Two months later, three NGOs – l’Observatoire des armements, SumOfUs and Friends of the Earth – issued a report with witness testimonies from people who had been held at the site.
It accused Emirati soldiers of inflicting “inhuman and degrading treatment (withholding care, torture)” there.
Based on the testimony of another former Balhaf prisoner, the Swiss NGO Mena Rights Group raised the issue at the UN Human Rights Commission in June 2020.
The following month, AFP reported that a case had been brought in Paris in 2019 against UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan citing presumed complicity in acts of torture at the detention centres.
The complaint was raised “in the name of six Yemeni citizens who had been held in these prisons”, according to their French lawyers, Joseph Breham and Laurence Greig.
Jean-Yves Le Drian’s curious memory lapses
With civil society alarm bells ringing ever more loudly, deputies Clementine Autain (La France Insoumise party) and Alain David (Socialist Party) tried to take the government to task.
“Like you, I have seen the article on the Balhaf issue in Yemen, and I am carrying out an enquiry to try to understand what might have happened,” replied the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in November 2019.
But returning to the issue a few months later, in July 2020, he now omitted the name of the site, and then repeated virtually word for word the press statement put out earlier by Total.
“Official requisition by the [Yemeni] government has been applied in time of war,” the minister argued, adding that “local teams… decided to split the site in two. They have constructed a wall dividing the plant on one side from a part of the site under coalition control and beyond any effective control of the company”.
Apparently somewhat distracted, Jean-Yves Le Drian neglected to mention an essential element: it is in fact not the official Yemeni government which is occupying the plant – where production is suspended – but one of its allies in the anti-Houthi coalition, the UAE.
Moreover, this Emirati occupation is happening against the wishes of some Yemeni officials, such as the governor of the region where Balhaf is located, Mohamed Saleh Ben Adio.
And the minister’s second argument is hardly convincing. How is it possible that France’s investigations at a site 40 percent owned by Total could simply be brought to a halt by a wall? Pressed by Orient XXI on these issues, the minister dodged the questions.
Shared defence interests
But the issue deserves to be addressed. In recent years, the UAE has become an essential partner for France. “Despite their small size and low profile, they play a key role in France’s international strategy,” says deputy Sebastien Nadot (Mouvement des progressistes).
To understand it, let’s turn the clock back to 1971 and the independence of this federation of emirates, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai at its forefront.
“As soon as the British withdrew, France began pursuing a policy of actively promoting its interests, swiftly opening embassies in all the Gulf countries,” recalls Deni Bauchard, former chief of staff at the foreign ministry and currently Middle East adviser at the French Institute of International Relations.
So ties between Paris and Abu Dhabi began to solidify. “From the first military rapprochement and the first arms sales in 1977, the connection between France and the UAE had something special about it, two countries with a strong character but relatively small size finding obvious common ground,” is the view of Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations at Clingendael.
On one side, a hugely rich federation, with burgeoning sovereign funds and a big appetite for arms purchases. On the other, a country endowed with technical expertise in the realms of arms and oil, but also with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and a certain measure of political independence vis-a-vis the United States.
With such strong foundations, this growing friendship was to be consolidated over the years, especially in the 1990s after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“At that time, Saudi Arabia remained powerless. The Emirates, like the other small Gulf states, realised that they could not rely on their big neighbour to defend them” says Emma Soubrier, researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
So Abu Dhabi began trying to diversify its partnerships – and reinforcing relations with France in particular. In 1995, they signed a new agreement allowing for French military intervention in the event of aggression against the UAE.
Alongside that alliance, the Gulf monarchy continued developing its own army, buying arms from French suppliers.
A French base in Abu Dhabi
The marriage between the two countries was to be celebrated with great ceremony at the inauguration in Abu Dhabi of the first French multi-service military base in the Middle East.
Now housing around 700 military personnel, it includes an air base, a naval base capable of receiving a French aircraft carrier, and an army base. It amounts to a small revolution in French foreign policy, traditionally focused on Africa.
“The UAE has become a key new focus for France,” wrote Mark Pekala, counsellor at the US embassy in Paris, in a diplomatic cable at the time. “For France, a presence in the UAE is strategic and will allow easy intervention to prevent possible disturbances affecting access to Gulf oil,” stresses Soubrier.
The inauguration was accompanied by a new strategic agreement “distinguished by the strength of the French commitment to the UAE… including a security clause in which France commits itself to defending the Emirates in the event of a threat from a third country”.
“It’s a clause whose details unfortunately have not been disclosed, because defence agreements are not submitted to parliament. But the French public might well be interested in military commitments which could drag them into a war,” warns Tony Fortin of the Observatoire des Armements, an organisation demanding greater transparency in French defence policy and arms sales.
And there has been no end to the honeymoon since then. Minister of defence under François Hollande in 2012, now foreign minister under Emmanuel Macron, socialist-turned-right winger Jean-Yves Le Drian stepped up his visits to the low-profile monarchy. The strategy paid dividends: UAE arms orders from France were worth €4.7bn between 2010 and 2019, including €1.5bn in 2019, according to the 2020 report to parliament on arms exports.
The Emirates need arms. “With his military background, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahayan has a belligerent political vision,” says researcher Jalel Harchaoui. “The crown prince wants to make the UAE, which is not a democratic state, into the new force for stability in the region, an ambition underpinned by his aversion to pluralist regimes. Any form of pluralism is for him an undesirable source of political uncertainty.”
When the Arab Spring took hold in 2011, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh responded to the call for help from their neighbour Bahrain, and sent troops to suppress the demonstrations.
Torture in the UAE’s prisons in Yemen
“The UAE is developing a regional strategy of influence and power which in particular involves the creation of commercial and military port facilities stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean,” explains Soubrier.
When UAE intervened alongside Saudi Arabia in 2015 to defend the government against the Houthi rebels, it used that war to develop a strategy of creating bases and trying to occupy the ports and facilities in the south – including Balhaf, the gas export plant in which Total is the main shareholder.
But war is war, and the intervention was bloody: the NGO Acted estimates 112,000 violent deaths between 2015 and 2020 in Yemen, while the UN adopts superlatives – “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world” – to flag up the situation in the country. Another scandal erupted when the Egyptian journalist Maggie Michael published a series of articles denouncing the existence of secret UAE prisons in Yemen, in which acts of torture were being committed.
“The UAE’s foreign policy has another guiding principle: a deep-rooted antipathy towards Qatar, and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood” observes Denis Bauchard.
It is through the lens of this struggle for influence that the former diplomat sees Abu Dhabi’s military support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the internationally recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj. That international recognition, of course, includes France, which at the same time is backing Field Marshal Haftar.
According to a July 2019 New York Times article, France also breached the arms embargo by giving Haftar anti-tank missiles. “Our role in Libya is ambiguous,” Denis Bauchard admits. Researcher Jalel Harchaoui concludes: “France’s policy in Libya is aligned with that of the UAE.”
In any event, French businesses continue their arms sales to Abu Dhabi, albeit without fanfare. The warship manufacturer Naval Group has been totally opaque about the sale of two Gowind corvettes in 2019 – there was no press release about this significant contract, and no mention of it in the company’s annual report for 2019.
If the French remain taciturn about defence strategy and arms sales, they are more overt in other arenas. France agreed to share two of its most iconic institutions with the UAE – the Sorbonne, and the Louvre, whose Abu Dhabi branch opened in 2017.
And it was not only culture that was on the table: in June 2020, at the 12th session of their strategic dialogue, the two countries announced “an ambitious road map for the next 10 years”.
“This high-level meeting also included exchanges in the key sectors of bilateral cooperation, such as the economy, trade and investment, oil and gas, nuclear and renewable energy, education, culture, health, space and security,” as the press release stated. The UAE a few weeks later congratulated itself on the “exemplary” level of cooperation in bilateral relations.
Jean-Yves Le Drian’s silence on Emirati excesses at Balhaf weighs heavily amid this plethora of ties. “Our influence in Yemen is limited,” Denis Bauchard believes.
“In general, France avoids grand statements and tries to fix problems pragmatically bit-by-bit,” he adds. Is Paris afraid of upsetting its ally by wading in more strongly on the issue of human rights in general and the Balhaf prison in particular?
The researcher Jalel Harchaoui believes so: “In general, Paris does not want to strike any false note that might spoil its intimate friendship with Abu Dhabi, believing that this symbiotic relationship will in the years to come always lead to success.”
But between the Yemeni quagmire, the Libyan imbroglio, secret prisons, torture and breaches of human rights, this “success” is tainted with failure.
Eva Thiebaud is an independent journalist based in Lyon, France.