Feeling U.S. snub, Saudis strengthen ties elsewhere

Kingdom hosts French president, industry leaders

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Increasingly vocal in its frustration over U.S. policies in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is strengthening ties elsewhere, seeking out an alignment that will bolster its position after it was pushed to the sidelines this year.

It may find a solution in France, whose president is ending the year with 24 hours of high-level meetings with the Saudi leadership in a visit intended to showcase commercial and diplomatic strength.

With an entourage of French executives from the lucrative defense and energy sectors, President Francois Hollande arrived Sunday in Riyadh for a flurry of accords and contracts that have been in the works for months. The two countries also find themselves unexpectedly aligned in resistance, if not outright opposition, to U.S. policy on Syria's civil war and Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. Hollande highlighted both aspects of the relationship during the visit, underscoring for reporters the number of diplomatic issues that the two countries agree on and noting that trade between the two had doubled in the past 10 years to $11 billion in 2013.

That trade would be enhanced by a $3 billion pledge, announced Sunday in Beirut, that Saudi Arabia has made to strengthen Lebanon's forces by purchasing weapons from France. Lebanon's president, Michel Sleiman, called it the biggest grant ever for his nation's military in making the surprise announcement in a televised national address. He did not provide any further details.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, recently described the policies of some partners toward Iran and Syria as a "dangerous gamble," while calling for the kingdom to be more assertive internationally after decades of operating in diplomatic shadows.

France, with similar fears about Syria, has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian moderate leadership, and Mr. Hollande had pledged military support against Syrian President Bashar Assad until both the United States and Britain backed away. On Iran, the French shouldered their way into the negotiations with Iran, demanding a better deal and warning that the Tehran government needed careful monitoring.

"We cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by," Prince Mohammed wrote in a Dec. 17 opinion piece in The New York Times.

"We expected to be standing shoulder to shoulder with our friends and partners who have previously talked so much about the importance of moral values in foreign policy," he wrote in the piece titled "Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone."

But it may not have to. The French have been clear that they share Saudi fears that U.S. and Russian concerns over Islamic militants could leave Assad the victor in any peace deal.

Mr. Hollande's visit is his second since taking office in May 2012 -- a rarity for a French leader outside Europe -- and his defense minister has been three times, most recently after the announcement of a $1.4 billion contract with the Saudi navy.

During their meeting Sunday, King Abdullah expressed his concern over the situation in both Iran and Syria to Mr. Hollande, and he praised what he called France's "courageous" position on these matters, according to a French official familiar with the discussions who would only speak on condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic rules.

At a news conference after the meeting, Mr. Hollande noted that the two countries' relations had deepened in recent months, in part because of their agreement on the crises in the region, including Syria's civil war and Iran's nuclear program.

"There is an offensive among the Saudis to try to reach out to different partners and try and see if they can find new allies," said Valentina Soria, a security analyst with IHS Jane's. At the same time, she said, Mr. Hollande is showing "the kind of willingness to intervene on the international stage in a much more assertive way, a much more convinced way."

In October, Saudi Arabia stunned diplomats when it rejected its first seat on the U.N. Security Council. The Saudi Foreign Ministry blasted the council for an "inability to perform its duties" in stopping the war.

The Saudis are particularly annoyed that the U.S. and Britain did not follow through with threats to punish Assad's government over the use of chemical weapons. Those decisions caused similar uproar in France for Mr. Hollande, who many at home believed was left hanging as the only Western power to pledge military support.

Both countries say they will continue to back the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, in contrast with the Obama administration's hesitation. Unlike the U.S., the French have resisted suspending nonlethal aid to the rebels and show no signs of changing course.

The Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 120,000 people and spawned a regional refugee crisis, has become in many ways a proxy fight pitting Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Arab states against Shiite powerhouse Iran, a major supporter of Assad.

Washington has strived to play down any suggestion of a rift. Senior American officials have traveled to the Persian Gulf recently to reassure allies, including Saudi Arabia. And Ms. Soria, the analyst, said the U.S. partnership, which includes billions in defense contracts, would endure beyond the current tensions.

But a closer Saudi-French relationship could mean more of those lucrative deals go to Paris.


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