France’s Hollande in Saudi to discuss Syria, Iran
JEDDAH: French President Francois Hollande arrived Sunday in the Saudi city of Jeddah on his first visit to the oil-rich kingdom for talks which will focus on Iran and unrest-hit Syria.
“This visit to Saudi Arabia is primarily political,” Hollande told reporters aboard the aircraft taking him from Beirut to the Red Sea city of Jeddah, adding that he would discuss “Lebanon, Syria, the peace process, and Iran.”
”France plays an active role in the Middle East. We are the most active country on issues concerning Syria, Lebanon, and the peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, he said.
Hollande’s stop in Jeddah comes after a brief visit to Beirut during which he pledged to protect Lebanon against threats of destabilisation caused by the deadly conflict in neighbouring Syria.
He will meet Saudi King Abdullah for the first time on his visit.
The two leaders are expected to discuss regional developments, mainly in Lebanon and Syria where an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule has left more than 36,000 people dead since March 2011.
Paris and Riyadh have “very similar views” on the nearly 20-month conflict in Syria, French sources said, adding that the two leaders are also due to discuss energy issues including nuclear power.
They will discuss the controversial nuclear programme of Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia’s arch rival across the Gulf, Shiite Iran, according to members of Hollande’s entourage.
Hollande this week said he would back more sanctions against the Islamic republic if there were no “concrete acts” from Tehran to prove it was not pursuing a nuclear arms drive.
Iran denies Israeli and Western suspicions that its nuclear programme is a cover for efforts to build an atomic bomb, but has been hit by several rounds of UN and Western sanctions over its activities.
“Saudi Arabia is extremely worried about Iranian actions” in its atomic ambitions, the Elysee presidential palace had said Friday.
On a bilateral level, they will also discuss cooperation in the energy and transport sectors.
“Saudi Arabia has always acted responsibly” regarding oil prices, showing interest in developing “nuclear energy,” said one French source. “We hope French companies would be more present in Saudi Arabia.”
A French minister who requested anonymity said Hollande’s visit is aimed at improving relations with the kingdom which chilled during the rule of France’s former head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Things weren’t working well. They weren’t so good and now we are trying to have something else,” he said.
The centrepiece of Hollande’s tour, however, is an Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit which starts in the capital of Laos on Monday against the backdrop of the eurozone economic crisis and lower growth forecast in Asia.
The two-day summit gathers all 27 EU member states and 21 from Asia, including China and India, growth engines which have both come under pressure as the eurozone debt crisis has undercut demand for their exports.