France and Saudi Arabia plan to boost economic ties by signing multibillion dollar projects, the French foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, President Hollande has arrived in Riyadh to attend a Gulf leaders' summit.
"If concluded, these 20 projects would be worth tens of billions of euros," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Tuesday in the Saudi city of Riyadh, adding the contracts could be finalized very "quickly."
The projects range from defense to transport, energy and civil aviation. Fabius confirmed that talks with Saudi officials were at an advanced stage, and that some of the contracts dealt with the naval sector.
"A certain number (of armament) projects need to be finalized and we should see the consequences of that in the coming months," he said.
Analysts say that the confirmation that France is ready to boost Saudi Arabia's military capabilities could be very contentious at a time when Riyadh is conducting airstrikes against Shiite Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The United Nations condemned the Saudi-led operation against Iran-backed insurgents in a statement on Monday. Over 1,200 people have been killed in Yemen since the start of the Saudi campaign in March, says the UN.
Earlier, French President Francois Hollande held talks with the kingdom's officials.
Hollande will also attend the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a regional bloc of six Sunni Arab states, which begins on Tuesday.
On Monday, the French president signed a $7 billion (6.2 billion euros) contract with Qatar's defense officials for 24 Rafale fighter jets.
After the signing ceremony, Hollande hailed his country's ties with Gulf states and thanked the GCC for inviting him to the summit.
"It is an honor for France, a sign of friendship and of confidence," he said.
Without naming France, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the West on Tuesday for destabilizing the Middle Eastern region by selling arms to the Arab states.
"The world should not smile at the problem of our region. Some American or European nation should not be proud of selling more weapons to this or that country," Rouhani said in a televised speech.
"They create insecurity in the region and unjustly make regional countries scared of each other, preparing the ground for a weapons market."
Yemen tops GCC agenda
The conflict in Yemen is likely to dominate the agenda of the GCC summit. Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will participate in the conference. Except Oman, all other nations are part of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthis.
The Sunni Gulf states are wary of Iran's increasing influence in the region, and they see the Houthi's advance in Yemen as a move that threatens their regional and geopolitical interests.
The Arab nations are also worried that Iran might still be able to develop nuclear weapons despite Tehran's framework accord with global powers which would eventually limit its nuclear capabilities.
The Gulf countries have invited Hollande to Tuesday's summit to demonstrate their strong alliance with the West in terms of regional security, a French official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
"They want the same from (US President Barack) Obama," the official added.
The GCC summit in Riyadh will lay the groundwork for talks between the Gulf leaders and US President Obama at the White House later this month, when Obama is expected to assure the Arab leaders on Iran's nuclear deal.
shs/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters)