France, Saudi Arabia negotiate projects worth billions
PARIS - Top French and Saudi leaders gathered Wednesday in Paris to discuss billions of Euros in projects as the two nations work to tighten economic and diplomatic bonds.
French President Francois Hollande hosted Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Prince Mohamed bin Salman after the inaugural meeting of a Franco-Saudi committee to talk about proposed projects in sectors like aeronautics and nuclear power.
Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Hollande during his visit to Riyadh in May for an economic summit, which included a meeting between Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the French president.
It was unclear whether the Saudi visit would yield concrete signed contracts, but Hollande said in May that announcements on deals between the two nations could come as soon as June.
After the first "Franco-Saudi Joint Commission" meeting, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced Saudi Arabia - the Arab world's largest economy - and France were in talks regarding 20 projects potentially worth tens of billions of Euros. France said it would look into building two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, which is part of some $12 billion in deals with the conservative kingdom that were announced.
Under one of the agreements Airbus will sell 23 H-145 multipurpose helicopters to Saudi Arabia for 500 million Euros as well as launch a feasibility study into building the reactors, Fabius said. He also mentioned the Saudi Arabian Airlines order for 50 Airbus passenger planes valued at $8 billion, first announced at last week's Paris Air Show.
The study for two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) - which France considers the safest and most advanced in the world - takes on added significance given the current efforts by Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran, to develop its own nuclear capabilities. In addition to the study, France will sign an agreement to train the Saudis on nuclear safety and the treatment of nuclear waste.
Fabius also announced a "commitment" from Saudi Arabia to acquire about 30 patrol boats for its navy. "It represents the creation of many jobs and hundreds of millions of Euros," he said.
Riyadh is keen to broaden its ties with Western powers beyond its traditional alliance with the United States, while France has been reinforcing links with the conservative kingdom despite persistent criticism of its human rights record. Saudi Arabia has been under international pressure, including from Washington and Paris, to drop a sentence of 1,000 lashes for a renowned human rights activist and blogger.
The kingdom has also faced criticism over its willingness to use the death penalty. Saudi Arabia executed 102 locals and foreigners in the year to mid-June, compared with 87 during all of 2014. Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court recently confirmed death sentences for two suspected Saudi Al-Qaeda members convicted of murdering four Frenchmen in 2007, according to press reports. The pair were convicted of shooting dead the French nationals - one of whom was a teenager - near the western city of Medina while they were on a desert excursion from their homes in the capital Riyadh.