French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday was remarkable in its timing and the scope of topics the two sides covered and agreed on. It came as the seventh round of the Vienna nuclear talks stalled after Iran reversed its position on many issues the P5+1 thought had been settled in the first six rounds. The seventh round, which was convened last Monday and ended abruptly on Friday, was the first under President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration, indicating a maximalist approach that could derail the talks altogether.

Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia was an important step toward enhancing the long-standing relationship between France and the Kingdom. It can be seen as the second important milestone in the development of the Saudi-French strategic partnership that was announced in Paris in 2018.

There is a long history of engagement between France and the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, where Paris opened its first diplomatic mission in Jeddah in 1839. In the wider Gulf region, France entered into fierce competition with Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, eventually losing the turf to London and later the US.

The historic meeting between King Faisal and President Charles De Gaulle in June 1967 marked a turning point in Saudi-French relations. Since then, every French president has visited Saudi Arabia at least once and Saudi leaders have reciprocated.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Macron have continued that tradition. In April 2018, the crown prince visited Paris and chaired with Macron the first meeting of the Saudi Arabia-France strategic partnership, which — according to official statements at the time — covered political, defense, security, economic, cultural, scientific and educational areas of cooperation.

Macron’s weekend visit committed the two sides to greater economic cooperation and private sector participation, “utilizing opportunities offered by the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and France’s 2030 economic plan in various sectors of joint interest.” They stressed the importance of following up the implementation of a “balanced economic partnership” through mutual investments in energy, water, sustainable cities, transportation, civil aviation, mobility solutions, digital economy, health, new technologies and other sectors. During the visit, important contracts and economic deals were sealed by private sector actors.

On the environment, Saudi Arabia and France committed to “preserving the environment and biodiversity, as the French president expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s initiatives and efforts in the field of environment and climate change,” according to the official statement.

Energy cooperation includes petroleum refining, petrochemical production, electricity generation, renewable energy and the security of energy installations. They agreed to enhance their cooperation in the production of nuclear energy “in a peaceful and safe framework,” the management of radioactive waste and nuclear applications, nuclear control and the development of human capabilities within the framework of an agreement signed in 2011.

On climate change, they stressed the importance of adhering to the principles of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, as well as the need to develop and implement climate agreements through the adoption of a circular carbon economy approach to addressing greenhouse gas emissions. The French side praised the Saudi Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative and agreed on the importance of cooperation to realize these initiatives and work jointly to consider opportunities to develop clean hydrogen production in the Kingdom and its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

They noted existing fruitful cooperation on the sustainable development of AlUla and the realization of its tourist potential, including the recent signing of new agreements through which France contributes to supporting cultural tourism in that region and the Kingdom at large.

Under the framework of Paris and Riyadh’s historic defense partnership, the two leaders agreed to strengthen dialogue between their respective institutions, including shared and vigilant evaluation of threats to regional security and stability.

On regional and international issues, there was an unexpected convergence of views on almost all issues, and they agreed to continue their close collaborations. They expressed similar views on Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, as well as on countering terrorism and extremism. And they supported “the right of the Palestinian people to establish their state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

On Iran, they expressed deep concerns over the development of its nuclear program and lack of cooperation and transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency. France stressed its determination not to allow Iran to develop or acquire a nuclear weapon. The two sides also agreed on the need to confront Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including the use and transfer of drones and ballistic missiles that have led to attacks on the Kingdom.

On Lebanon, they called on the Beirut government to carry out “comprehensive reforms” in the finance and energy sectors, as well as on border controls and combating corruption. They also called on it to adhere to the Taif Accord to restore “national unity and civil peace.” They supported efforts to strengthen the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining security and stability and, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah and other militias, stressed the need to restrict the use of force to the “legitimate institutions of the state.”

In a new development, France and Saudi Arabia expressed their readiness to “work with Lebanon to ensure the implementation of these measures,” and they agreed to continue “joint consultations on all these issues.”

A Saudi-French mechanism for humanitarian assistance for Lebanon was also announced, which will work in cooperation with like-minded partners.

Some have expressed concerns that the Saudi-French convergence achieved in the Riyadh summit may not last beyond the next presidential election, which is scheduled for April 2022. French politics is unpredictable, of course, but looking at the trajectory of Saudi-French relations since 1967, it is clear that all French presidents from either end of the political spectrum have committed themselves to this special relationship, regardless of any differences that have arisen.

After setting the bilateral strategic partnership framework in motion in 2018 — providing a useful forum for debate, consensus-building and mutual understanding — it is safe to say that it will endure in the future.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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