I- Saudi-French relations are poised to return to their strategic glory, recent bilateral interactions from September and October indicate. The recent developments mark a major turning point from the coldness that has engulfed Saudi-French ties between 2018 and 2020 due to the Khashoggi murder, the war in Yemen, and the Saudi-US relations under former US President Donald Trump.
II- In 2021, France has a unique opportunity to step up as Riyadh’s main ally amid the ongoing fallout between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz and the Biden administration. After a historic high under President Trump, which overshadowed the Kingdom’s relations with European states, Saudi-US relations have plummeted since US President Joe Biden took office. As a result, Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its alliances and reduce its security dependency on the United States. France, Britain, and even Russia and China are already making a play to fill the vacuum left by the US disengagement from the Middle East.
III- Based on common strategic interests that date back decades, Saudi-French relations emphasize defense cooperation, strong economic ties, and maintaining security in the Middle East.
CP MOHAMMAD AND PRESIDENT MACRON TALK: BACK TO STRATEGIC TIES?
1- Crown Prince Mohammad received a phone call from French President Emmanuel Macron on September 30, 2021. The two leaders reviewed Saudi-French relations and discussed ways to develop them in various fields.
2- A visit from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian followed the phone on October 4, 2021. Le Drian met with Crown Prince Mohammad and his younger brother and Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled Bin Salman. The French ambassador to Riyadh has also met with the Saudi Foreign Minister a week after Le Drian’s visit.
3- President Macron’s phone call and Le Drian’s follow-up visit to the Kingdom revived Saudi-French ties after a long slumber. With the exception of another phone call between Crown Prince Mohammad and President Macron in January and a visit from a Naval Group executive in September, there has been no high-level interaction between the Saudi and French governments in 2021.
4- Likewise, there have not been any senior-level meetings between Saudi Arabia and France since April 2018, when Crown Prince Mohammad visited President Macron in Paris. Saudi-French ties primarily deteriorated as a result of President Macron’s efforts to revive the nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement. While President Macron’s position vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear deal has not changed, the United States has re-taken charge of efforts to revive the agreement, sidelining both Saudi Arabia and France. The Khashoggi murder, Crown Prince Mohammad’s internal reforms, and the war in Yemen have also contributed to the worsening Saudi-French ties between 2018 and 2021.
5- An in-person meeting between Crown Prince Mohammad and President Macron will be the definitive indicator that bilateral relations are returning to their strategic glory. In such a case, arms deals are very likely to follow.
EXPANDING SAUDI-FRENCH DEFENSE COOPERATION
6- Saudi-French defense cooperation will likely increase thanks to the recent rapprochement between Crown Prince Mohammad and President Macron, and could plug the capability gap resulting from the rift between Saudi Arabia and its main military supplier, the United States. The Biden administration’s attempt to isolate Crown Prince Mohammad over human rights issues had forced him to enhance other foreign relations, including the one with France – read our recent report on how Crown Prince Mohammad is receiving support from the royal family in his feud with Biden.
7- Historically, French defense companies have played a key role in building up Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities in all domains. French shipyards have built some of Saudi Arabia’s most capable warships, including the Al Riyadh-class and Al Madinah-class frigates, and are currently negotiating to localize defense production in the kingdom – see our latest intelligence report on the SAMI-Naval Group joint venture’s co-production plans. French companies have also supplied helicopters, air defense systems, and an assortment of missiles to the Saudi military.
8- Saudi Arabia urgently requires new and modern radars, especially those that can detect low-observable objects like drones and cruise missiles; more vessels to police its massive maritime territory, and unmanned aerial vehicles. All of these requirements are governed by Vision 2030 that requires foreign companies to localize production, transfer technology and develop Saudi talent.
9- Today French companies face tougher competition on the Saudi market than ever before. Besides the usual players from Europe and North America, emerging producers from Asia (e.g. China, South Korea, Japan), Russia, and Turkey also seek to take a share of the market. However, France has something the other countries do not possess: a long history of meaningful bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia; and a new chapter is just around the corner.
[Fully reproduced in TR Weekly 28/42 – October 15, 2021]