Influential members of the Saudi Arabian government believe that the United States—the kingdom’s most valuable strategic ally since 1945—has abandoned Riyadh on a host of regional issues, most notably Iran’s nuclear program. As the Saudis respond by seeking to enhance their political and economic relations with powers other than the United States, France sees an opportunity to supplant Washington as Riyadh’s closest ally. While it remains unlikely that Paris will entirely replace Washington as Saudi Arabia’s most important ally, France can compete with the United States to become the kingdom’s top supplier of advanced military technology in the future.
Following the interim nuclear agreement of November 2013, French officials joined their Saudi counterparts in questioning whether Tehran could be trusted, and Iran’s commitment to ending its ability to build a nuclear bomb. While it remains to be seen how the recently signed Iranian nuclear agreement will impact Paris and Tehran’s relationship, of all parties in the P5+1 talks, France is said to have taken the toughest stance against the Iranian nuclear program, which has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh.
French Arms Deals in the Gulf
Although France’s economy barely maintains positive GDP growth rates, its arms industry is booming. As the world’s fourth largest arms exporter (behind the United States, Russia, and China), France sold nearly double the amount of arms in the first five months of 2015 (more than $16 billion) than in all of 2014. From 2010 to 2014, 38 percent of French arms exports went to the Middle East, making it the most important region for the country’s arms industry ( 30 percent went to Asia; 13 percent to Europe; 11 percent to North and South America; and four percent to Africa). France’s arms sales for the first half of 2015 created more than 30,000 jobs— significant for a country grappling with record high unemployment.
France has waged a robust diplomatic engagement with Saudi Arabia for years. In June, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited France to sign deals worth $12 billion, which included $500 million for 23 Airbus H145 helicopters. Saudi and French officials also agreed to pursue feasibility studies to build two nuclear reactors in the kingdom. The remaining money will involve direct investment negotiated between Saudi and French officials.
In May, French President François Hollande visited Riyadh to address a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit (the first time a non-GCC head of state has done so) and to launch a strategic initiative between France and the Council. Hollande spoke of the GCC facing “dangers emanating from countries’ designs and interference in (GCC) internal affairs,” a clear reference to Iran. Hollande’s address was delivered one day after he was in Doha, where he signed a $7 billion deal that included the sale of 24 French Rafale fighter jets to Qatar, along with the training of Qatari intelligence officers.
In 2013, President Hollande, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian traveled to the kingdom to meet with the late King Abdullah, other Saudi officials, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Ahmed Jarba of the Syrian opposition. A delegation of 30 businesses accompanied Hollande on his visit, which ended with the signing of a deal in which France pledged $3 billion of French weapons for the Lebanese Army (a grant worth twice as much as Lebanon’s entire military budget).
The meeting underscored Paris and Riyadh’s growing alignment. Just three months earlier, France was the EU military power most in favor of direct military engagement against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, following the Ghouta chemical attack of August 2013. In April, Foreign Minister Fabius also visited Saudi Arabia to emphasize French support for the kingdom’s campaign in Yemen, an additional sign of Paris and Riyadh’s alignment on regional matters.
The Broader Geostrategic Context
Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in fostering a stronger alliance with France should also be understood within a grander geostrategic context, in which Washington’s traditional Sunni Arab allies have become frustrated and confused by U.S. foreign policy on a plethora of issues, such as the “Arab Awakening”, human rights and the Iranian nuclear agreement. Officials in Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt and other GCC states, have sought to explore deeper partnerships with powers beyond the United States.
The United Kingdom’s decision last year to double down on support for Bahrain by opening a naval base in the island kingdom (which marked the British navy’s first permanent return to the Gulf since the British officially departed in 1971) was rich in symbolism. As the Obama administration’s rhetoric condemning Bahrain’s human rights violations has fueled tension in U.S.-Bahrain relations, Manama’s growing military alliance with London factors into the Bahraini leadership’s determination to explore relationships with other powers. Qatar and Kuwait’s recent signing of defense deals (and talks of others) with France, Germany and Italy fits into the same geopolitical context. Apart from the gradual thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, the Obama administration’s declared pivot-to-Asia (a shift away from the Middle East) has prompted reconsideration of basic post-World War II geostrategic and security norms in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.