France tries to supplant US as Saudi Arabia's arms supplier

With the US role in retreat in the Middle East, France and Saudi Arabia find themselves in need of each other, both politically and economically.

al-monitor French President Francois Hollande looks at the Paris skyline, Dec. 17, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Remy de la Mauviniere.

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saudi arabia foreign policy, king abdullah bin abdulaziz al saud, france, arms sales

Dec 27, 2013

Three issues are on the desk of French President Francois Hollande and Saudi King Abdullah: Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

The top priority of the French president, who's visiting Saudi Arabia Dec. 29-30, is to conclude an unprecedented arms deal with Saudi Arabia, thus exploiting the chill in US-Saudi relations and entering the oil region’s largest arms market, which has spent more than $70 billion during in one decade to accumulate the region’s largest arsenal.

Hollande wishes to gradually supplant America in this market in case America keeps retreating from the crises of the Middle East and Central Asia, and if America’s nuclear understanding with Tehran is consecrated.

Listening to one of Elysee’s advisers review the French rapprochement with Saudi Arabia helps one understand the nature of future expectations, and how the two countries are working together to tackle upcoming events, not only in Lebanon, but also in French-Arab relations.

A French source said the focus of the discussion with King Abdullah on Lebanon will be about protecting Lebanon’s stability, maintaining its constitutional institutions and their work, and activating the work of the Friends of Lebanon group, which was a French initiative launched during the UN General Assembly last September.

In Lebanon, the practical translation of Hollande’s visit concerns extending President Michel Suleiman’s term, which has become a Saudi-French point of intersection. The Lebanese presidential election is an important factor in Lebanon’s stability and is a priority item on the agenda of the meeting between the French president and the Saudi monarch.

An official at the Elysee said, “We don’t see how Saudi Arabia can pressure March 14 to facilitate the formation of a government, for example. The pressure should be exercised on Hezbollah first and foremost.”

When the Syrian war started, the French abandoned their centrist position with regard to Lebanon. Now they need a strong ally to compensate for losing the ability to talk to everyone, as they were able to do in the past.

Paris took a side in the war against Hezbollah and Syria by putting Hezbollah’s military wing on the European terrorism list, by supporting the Syrian opposition, by taking a more radical stance toward Iran and one-upping the American position in order to appease Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The French likely found in Saudi Arabia the required energy to reverse the declining French presence and to intervene in files that were no longer accessible to France because of its ongoing economic crisis and its inability to control regional conflicts, except for in its African backyard, where chaos is spreading.

NATO worked to bring down the Libyan regime, thus liberating al-Qaeda and allowing the jihadists to spread. South Libya and the Sabha area have become a base to supply weapons and fighters to the jihadist crescent extending from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and ending in the Sahara, Mali and Chad.

Regarding Syria, a source at the Elysee said the French president will discuss with Saudi officials the two countries' agreement that "there’s no political solution in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad stays at his post.” But realism and the balance of forces on the ground forces one to recognize that “the matter is no longer possible at the moment, and that [Assad] would probably leave before the start of the transitional stage."

The French, like the Saudis, don’t seem too optimistic about the results of the Geneva II conference and questioned whether it would be held at all. The source said, “The conference should produce credible results, if it is held at all.”

French presidential advisers believe that Moscow would accept a deal that would sacrifice Assad upon finding an Alawite or Baathist replacement, securing a guarantee to preserve Russian interests and keep the Syrian state and the army united. The French believe that when such a person is found, it would be possible to talk to the Russians about a deal to be rid of Assad.

Former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spent the first year of the Syrian crisis repeating through his sources that the Russians seem flexible about making a deal on Syria. But then Moscow and Beijing used their UN veto three times consecutively to block UN Security Council resolutions against Syria and Assad.

With regard to Iran, the French-Saudi discussion will cover the Saudi concern about the US-Iran nuclear understanding. A French source said that the Saudis asked the French to “brief them on the progress of the negotiations on a final agreement with Iran. They are worried about the Iranian steps.”

It seems that the Saudis have come to rely on the French to follow what’s going on in the meetings between the P5+1 group and Tehran, rather than relying on the United States. The Americans may have shocked their historic Gulf allies by secretly negotiating with the Iranian delegation under Gulf noses in nearby Oman for eight months.

The US-Iran understanding resulted in the interim agreement in Geneva. At first, the French tried to block that agreement so Hollande wouldn’t have to go to Tel Aviv burdened with an agreement signed with Iran.

The Saudis wanted the final agreement delayed and for the United States to impose more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. But the United States let the Saudis down. So the Saudis pinned their hopes on the French, who in turn hope to take the Americans’ place.

The source said the Saudis had asked the French for guarantees from the six countries negotiating with the Iranians to ensure that Iran does not become a military nuclear power in the Gulf and that the final agreement gives guarantees that satisfy Riyadh.

During his 24-hour visit to Saudi Arabia, Hollande will have the ability to bargain over everything presented so far by Paris to Saudi Arabia, from diplomatic support in Syria and Lebanon, to the Iranian nuclear file.

The Elysee adviser said that visitors from Riyadh claimed that King Abdullah gave directives to grant France priority on economic deals. The value of those deals in the Saudi market is more than $550 billion over the next 10 years and include transporting nuclear reactors, weapons and infrastructure.

Before 2013 ends, Hollande wants to sign a deal with the Saudis that would save the French company Thales from certain crisis. The deal may involve the Saudis buying new Crotale missiles worth 2.7 billion euros, and a deal to maintain and rehabilitate rockets and border and air defenses, valued at 2.4 billion euros. The Saudis already agreed to this deal, but they were still hesitant to give their final signature.

The more important deal, which will be a test of Saudi preference of France, is the third generation of modern French Sawari frigates and submarines. The deal, which is estimated at between 15 to 20 billion euros, will test the French bet on Saudi credibility. It also grants Saudi Arabia its first submarine and a reliable ally in the confrontation with Iran and the Syrian regime.

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