French President Francois Hollande’s visit to Riyadh this week has made headlines in the French media. The French newspaper Le Monde has been particularly interested in the objectives of the visit, and its implications for relations between the two states. The newspaper even described Hollande as Riyadh’s “best Western ally” after the Saudi-American disagreement over the Syria and Iran files.
The newspaper pointed out that Hollande was warmly received in Saudi Arabia, which is perhaps reflective of Riyadh’s uncertainty about relations with the Kingdom’s historic partner, the United States, ever since US President Barack Obama’s reversal of his decision to launch a military strike on Syria in September and his double-faced diplomatic step toward Iran, Saudi Arabia’s key enemy in the region.
Le Monde noted that the Saudi-French mutual desire to see Bashar Al-Assad’s regime toppled is not the only reason behind the Saudi-French honeymoon. The two countries’ relations are also based on a shared sense of distrust towards the Iranian nuclear programme and Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. The newspaper confirmed that when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius walked away from signing a nuclear deal with Iran in early November, this was a cause of happiness for the Saudis. Meanwhile, Riyadh viewed the stance of US Secretary of State John Kerry as “weak”.
While French foreign policy in the region is winning Saudi Arabia’s respect, Paris, in turn, wants arms contracts as a token of Saudi gratitude. “Saudi Arabia’s $55 billion (40 billion euros) fiscal surplus works up the French appetite,” the newspaper added.
Le Monde described how Saudi-French relations witnessed a convergence during the era of former President Jacques Chirac, particularly concerning two main incidents: the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a close friend of Chirac and the Saudi royal court, as well as Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. However, relations declined, the newspaper observed, in favour of Qatar under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who gave preference to Doha over Riyadh in the Gulf. But Hollande has returned to Chirac’s way, as he prefers the “Saudi giant” and actively calls for the ouster of Bashar Al-Assad.
Le Monde concluded that the French-Saudi policy in Lebanon, like in Syria, could end up disturbing the US at a time when the latter deviates more and more away from the “Sunni Axis”. The newspaper also warned that: “In addition to the real risk of isolation from the Geneva II conference, Paris will find it more difficult to justify its relationship with Riyadh at a time when Saudi officials are backing, and even financing, repression in Egypt and continue to adopt a policy that is more than repressive in the human rights field.”