PARIS (Reuters) - France’s tough line in talks with Iran and a similar analysis to Gulf Arab states on regional crises has sealed strategic new links in the Middle East that will be cemented when President Francois Hollande attends a regional leaders’ summit next week.
Those ties, which Paris has sought to nurture since Hollande came to power in 2012 - were highlighted on Thursday when Qatar agreed to buy French-made Rafale fighter jets in a 6.3-billion-euro ($7 billion) deal.
Hollande travels to Doha on May 4 to sign the contract before heading to Riyadh at King Salman’s invitation to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heads of state, a first for a Western leader, at which issues from the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to Syria’s civil war will top the agenda.
“It’s important for us because it shows the appreciation of Gulf countries in our strategic choices with regard to Iran, Syria and the fight against Islamic State,” said a senior French diplomat. “We’ve shown we’re a reliable partner that doesn’t shirk its responsibilities in the region.”
France, a U.N. Security Council veto-holder, has held out for strict conditions on Iran in any deal to ease sanctions on Tehran in return for monitoring and curbs of its nuclear program.
It also rebuked Washington two years ago for backing down at the last minute on bombing Syria over the use of chemical weapons, a decision that enraged Gulf Arab Sunni states.
France is part of a U.S-led coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq, has thousands of troops in West Africa fighting al Qaeda-linked groups and has a naval based in the United Arab Emirates.
Hollande’s visit comes 10 days before Gulf leaders travel to the United States for a summit with President Barack Obama.
“France has a reputation of being tougher than the Americans in the Iran negotiations and that can only please the Saudis,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former defense official and special adviser at the Paris-based Strategic Research Foundation.
“It has shown that it has a regional vision and the capacity to act where and when it feels it’s necessary,” he said, adding that the intention was not to sideline the United States but remind Washington it wasn’t alone in the world.
Paris’ shift to the Gulf states first under former president Nicolas Sarkozy and now Hollande has paid off.
Over the last year Paris has sealed more than $15 billion dollars of military contracts in the region. The Riyadh summit will see further bilateral talks between France and individual states on business ties, officials said.
“Our American friends are aggressive competitors and have a very efficient diplomacy, but France offers an alternative diplomacy,” said Eric Trappier, the chief executive of Rafale-maker Dassault AviationPA>.
“It has close strategic interests with some countries and so with a good fighter jet product as well then the stars align,” Trappier said, adding there were talks with other Gulf states for the sale of combat jets.
Editing by Dominic Evans