France overtaking Britain as Gulf States’ main European ally

French President Francois Hollande visits the Diriyah Historical City, near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 5, 2015. (Reuters/Christophe Ena)
France is quickly becoming the most important European ally to the Gulf States, after President Francois Hollande made a landmark visit to the region and clinched an important deal.

On Tuesday, Hollande won a £4.5 billion defense contract to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets to Qatar.

He also attended a key Arab summit in Saudi Arabia with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman – as the first western leader to do so.

They discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria.

Hollande held talks with the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on Monday before continuing his journey to Saudi Arabia, seeking to strengthen political and business ties with the Gulf States.

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Mustafa Alani, of the Gulf Research Centre, commented on the role the UK and France play in the region. “With Britain there is the sense that when you deal with the Americans you buy one, get one free” he told the Times.

“There is a romance with the British in the region because of the history. We won’t lose that, but in terms of policy we don’t know where the British stand. The French have a voice and we can hear it.”

Iran’s nuclear program and current talks between the West and Iran to achieve a deal were also on the agenda at the summit.

Hollande and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman released a statement together on the issue.

“France and Saudi Arabia confirmed the necessity to reach a robust, lasting, verifiable, undisputed and binding deal with Iran,” the two leaders said. “This agreement must not destabilize the security and stability of the region nor threaten the security and stability of Iran’s neighbors.”

Britain has secured several large arms deals with Gulf States, most notably with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The latter is Britain’s biggest single arms market. In 2007, the UK signed a £20 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to supply 72 Eurofighter Typhoons – the UK’s biggest defense contract yet.

Last year, the UK signed an agreement with Bahrain for a permanent naval base. It also signed a deal with Qatar agreeing to share intelligence and deepen ties and cooperation between their security agencies.