France: Saudi Arabia's New Arms Dealer

France cannot replace the United States entirely, but it is making important inroads with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in fostering a stronger alliance with France should also be understood within a grander geostrategic context, in which Washington’s traditional Sunni Arab allies have become frustrated and confused by U.S. foreign policy on a plethora of issues, such as the “Arab Awakening”, human rights and the Iranian nuclear agreement. Officials in Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt and other GCC states, have sought to explore deeper partnerships with powers beyond the United States.

The United Kingdom’s decision last year to double down on support for Bahrain by opening a naval base in the island kingdom (which marked the British navy’s first permanent return to the Gulf since the British officially departed in 1971) was rich in symbolism. As the Obama administration’s rhetoric condemning Bahrain’s human rights violations has fueled tension in U.S.-Bahrain relations, Manama’s growing military alliance with London factors into the Bahraini leadership’s determination to explore relationships with other powers. Qatar and Kuwait’s recent signing of defense deals (and talks of others) with France, Germany and Italy fits into the same geopolitical context. Apart from the gradual thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, the Obama administration’s declared pivot-to-Asia (a shift away from the Middle East) has prompted reconsideration of basic post-World War II geostrategic and security norms in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Perhaps nowhere has Riyadh’s interest in diversifying its strategic partnerships been as evident as the kingdom’s recent dealings with Russia. Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to St. Petersburg last month—where he signed agreements in the areas of nuclear technology sharing, oil production, and space exploration—sent a clear message to the United States that the kingdom will not hesitate to collaborate with Washington’s rivals to gain leverage by taking advantage of Moscow and the West’s deteriorating relationship.

However, given Russia’s growing alliance with Iran, ongoing strong support for the Syrian regime, opposition to the Riyadh-led military campaign in Yemen, and the Kremlin’s anger over the kingdom’s oil production policy, there are a host of issues that will likely prevent Russia from supplanting the United States as Riyadh’s key ally. Similarly, although China’s quest for energy in light of its economic explosion has enabled the Saudis to keep a foot in both the U.S. and Chinese camps by buying arms from Washington while selling an increasingly sizable portion of its oil to China and other Asian countries, Beijing’s position on various regional issues (most notably, Iran and Syria) will similarly limit the extent to which China could supplant the United States as the kingdom’s key ally.

Although Saudi Arabia finds more support for its foreign policy agenda from France than from other world powers, a growing French-Saudi alliance faces its own complications. Just as U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record does not sit well with officials in Riyadh, France’s condemnation of the kingdom’s liberal use of capital punishment undoubtedly annoys Saudi officials. While in Saudi Arabia for the GCC summit, Hollande called on the kingdom to abolish the death penalty (the previous day Saudi authorities executed five foreigners on charges of murder and robbery).

At the same time, French public opinion is a factor as Paris weighs strategic and moral costs. Following France’s sale of 24 of its own Rafale fighter jets to the Egyptian government, Julien Bayou, spokesperson for the EELV (France’s green party), denounced “the delivery of weapons of war to a military dictatorship whose violations against human rights…are now legion.” Given Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, opposition to selling arms to GCC countries may create a political dilemma for French officials, as it has recently in Germany.

A potential improvement in French-Iranian relations—both in economic and security spheres— following the June 14 agreement could erode France’s image as the most hawkish world power on Iran. France’s businesses, like those of most European countries, see Iran as a potentially lucrative market once the sanctions are lifted. Fabius visited Tehran earlier this month, marking the first trip of a French diplomat to Iran in 12 years, to discuss bilateral trade with Iranian officials.

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