On May 5, Riyadh hosted the first-ever GCC-France summit, where President François Hollande launched his “strategic partnership” initiative with the GCC. The positive feedback from GCC leaders and the historical joint statement issued after the summit made clear that the two sides were indeed ready to elevate their already close cooperation to unprecedented levels.
It was the first time a foreign leader had taken part in the mid-year “consultative” GCC summit, although foreign leaders had participated in the more formal year-end summits. It was therefore indicative of the growing GCC-France engagement that President Hollande took part in this meeting, which was held at Diriyah palace, which is ideal for the intimate, family-like GCC summits.
It was clear that the French president was well-versed in the history and current challenges facing the region. He recalled when the GCC was established in 1981, it had to deal with dangers blowing its way from the Iran-Iraq war. Today, he said, the GCC is facing “the new challenges coming from terrorist groups such as Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, the instability of neighboring countries… in addition to dangers emanating from some countries’ designs and interference in (GCC) internal affairs.”
On Yemen, he said, “France supports you in what you have done to restore stability in Yemen, from Operation Decisive Storm to Restoration of Hope.” He equally praised the humanitarian initiatives taken by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries toward Yemen.
Hollande said that France appreciated GCC determination to preserve the safety and security of the region, adding: “There are threats that you and we both face and I would like to reemphasize France’s commitment to stand by you and support you, not just because we are your friends and allies, but because defending your interests is also a defense of ours.”
Perhaps Hollande had in mind the hesitation of some other allies when he pointedly said, “France was and will always be your friend. It is determined to remain a strong, credible and reliable ally and partner… We are faithful to our friends and to our commitments. France never hesitates to do the right thing, even if it is military action.”
Stressing his own personal commitment to elevate GCC-France ties, Hollande said, “I want to work with all my force to deepen this relationship and strategic partnership, with your member states and with your organization, at all levels, political, security, economic, energy, and cultural.” Noting the historical significance of this move, Hollande added, “Because our partnership is the fruit of our history and will be our historical legacy, we want to work to strengthen the trust and friendship between us.”
The French president made it clear that there are no limits to this new partnership, but suggested, in particular, political coordination, fighting terrorism, economic cooperation and cultural exchange.
Hollande stressed the need for increased GCC-France cooperation to find solutions to regional crises; in Syria, for example, to “unify and support the moderate opposition;” in Iraq to encourage “reconciliation of all Iraqi components;” in Libya, to work toward an accord for political transition. France suggested that the outcome of the UN mediation efforts in Libya should be in the form of a national unity government.
In Yemen, he said that France stood by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia to defend legitimacy. He declared French support for President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Riyadh Conference convened by President Hadi. He also called for the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2216 (2015).
On the Iran nuclear negotiation, Hollande seemed more skeptical than other P5+1 members, adding that there is still a long way ahead. Most significantly, he added that the deal should not contribute to “regional instability” and that the arms embargo imposed on Iran should remain, and the sanctions be lifted gradually, according to Iran’s conduct after the deal is signed.
From the French and GCC leaders’ remarks, as well as the final communiqué issued after the meeting, the newly founded GCC-France “strategic partnership” may follow five parallel tracks:
First: Political coordination to address regional and global issues.
Second: Military cooperation.
Third: Security cooperation to fight terrorism.
Fourth: Economic and energy cooperation. With a combined GDP of about $4.2 trillion, the GCC provides a huge market with infinite possibilities for greater trade and investment, as well as energy where GCC countries are major producers of conventional energy and France is a leader in renewable energy.
Fifth: Cultural engagement. A lot of work needs to be done to make France more culturally visible in the GCC region, and vice versa. In addition, France has about 8 million people (12 percent of its population) who are of Arab or Muslim origins, a fact that could help bring the two sides together.
The coming weeks and months should witness a lot of activity on both sides to lay down the plans and programs to put this shared vision into effect and build a mutually rewarding strategic partnership.