France vows to defend Arab allies, strengthen business ties

AP News
|
Posted: May 05, 2015 2:37 PM
France vows to defend Arab allies, strengthen business ties

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — French President Francois Hollande vowed to defend Gulf Arab allies as he announced Tuesday that his country is in talks with Saudi Arabia for business deals worth tens of billions of euros (dollars).

Hollande made the remarks after a ceremonial meeting in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, with the heads of state of the six energy-rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meeting was headed by Saudi King Salman, who met Hollande for bilateral talks Monday night.

The Western-allied council does not traditionally invite foreign heads of state to its meetings, but Tuesday's summit was meant primarily as a show of gratitude for Hollande, who has been supportive of the Gulf countries.

Hollande said threats faced by these Arabian Gulf nations are also faced by Paris. He said that any nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers also must not threaten the Gulf, pledging France would not hesitate to defend its allies there — even with military action.

"We are here to define a strategic, durable partnership," he told reporters about his meetings with the Saudis. He said both sides discussed "information and intelligence exchange in order to fight terrorism."

Hollande refused to provide detail on the potential business deals but said there were about 20 projects including arms exports, solar power installations, civil aircraft deliveries, transportation projects and health efforts. Some of the deals will be formalized in October, he said.

Ties between Washington and Riyadh have cooled under President Barack Obama as his administration works toward a nuclear deal with Iran. France's position on the issue has been closer to that of Saudi Arabia, which is worried that any deal lifting sanctions will bolster Iran's growing influence in the region.

In his remarks, King Salman urged the international community "to set strict rules to ensure the preservation of the region's security and stability and to prevent the rush toward an arms race."

Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals who back opposite sides in Syria's civil war. Saudi Arabia and Iran also support rival political parties in Lebanon, and the kingdom is leading airstrikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Monday, Hollande signed a 6.3 billion euro ($7 billion) deal to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets to Qatar, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani quickly criticized.

"European countries shouldn't be proud of selling more weapons to this or that country," Rouhani said in remarks carried by the semi-official Fars news agency.

Hollande also met former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while in Saudi Arabia. Considered Lebanon's most influential Sunni Muslim politician, Hariri splits his time between Saudi Arabia and France after leaving Lebanon in January 2011 after Hezbollah and its allies brought down his government.

In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh. The Lebanese military is widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by Iran.

___

Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.