Economy

Qatar Keeps Pouring Millions Into France - What's The End Game?

Even Darth Vader supports the Qatari-owned PSG
Even Darth Vader supports the Qatari-owned PSG
Pascal Boniface

-Analysis-

PARIS - A specter is looming over France. That specter is called Qatar.

Qatar's announcement that it would invest 50 million euros in the impoverished suburbs outside Paris, an investment that will be matched by a fund partly financed by the French government and partly by the private sector, has sparked growing controversy.

Some people would have you believe that France’s independence is being threatened by this tiny Arab state of 1.7 million people -- of whom only 300,000 are Qatari nationals. From the comments, you’d think France is about to be invaded by Qatar.

If we are to believe the critics, the 50 million euros Qatar wants to pour into Paris’ troubled suburbs will endanger French national identity -- which mustn’t be that strong if it is threatened by so little.

Huge investments

Let us take a rational approach, which has so far been lacking from this debate. Qatar has been investing billions of euros in France for numerous years. It also buys large amounts of capital goods from France.

However, this current investment fund plan has provoked more commentary than the much larger investment deals in French industrial groups, or utility companies. Since Qatar's 40 millions euro acquisition of 70% of the Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) soccer club last year, Qatar seems to have become the center of a continuing debate in Paris.

There is no doubt that the news of the Qatari investment brought to mind, for many people, the image of a horde of imams that would come preaching Wahhabism and hatred of the West in our immigrant suburbs -- that are already close to implosion. However, when the American Embassy in France announced in 2010 that youth outreach in Paris’ disadvantaged suburbs was one of its key priorities, we hardly said a word.

No doubt if the actions funded by the Qatari fund aren’t 100% kosher, sensationalist and denunciatory media coverage from the French press will ensue.

Unjustified fears

Unfortunately, the French government has abandoned these disadvantaged, immigrant suburbs -- and the people who live there are neither being valued nor considered. Both the U.S. and Qatar recognize this, as well as a handful of French politicians.

It is amusing to witness the French hysteria over the news of this Qatari investment, a tiny investment compared to the billions spent by Qatari investors in other sectors.

When a Qatari investment fund bought the PSG soccer club, the Sports Minister at the time, Chantal Jouanno, publicly complained about the fact that the club would be held by foreign capital. The only problem with this was that the club’s previous owners were a U.S. investment fund -- that didn’t put much money in the club, truth be told.

People said that after the Qatari buyout, the French women's team would not be allowed to play at the PSG's Parc des Princes stadium. In fact, the women’s team had never played there before the buyout. It’s worth noting that since the Qataris bought the PSG, the women’s team has gone professional and seen its budget multiplied by four.

People also said that the club’s agreement with the Paris Foot Gay (PFG) team would be repealed, since Qatar, like many Arabic countries, penalizes homosexuality. However, the agreement was renewed. Qatar respects the French legal system whilst they are in France. The hotels that they own here serve alcohol too.

French benefits

France and Qatar started enjoying a close relationship when the current emir came to power in 1996. In 2000, when the country launched a project to mine liquefied petroleum gas, the only company to jump on the opportunity was France’s Total, while Anglo-Saxon companies shied away. At the time, a barrel of oil was not much more than $10. Since then, political, military, economic and strategic relations between the two countries have developed to mutually benefit one another.

Yes, Qatar is pursuing its national interest, but what's wrong with that? It's a win-win situation for both countries, with France being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Qatar being a small, extremely wealthy, yet fragile country that needs to assert itself on the map in relation to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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