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Saudi-French ties touch new heights

Hard on the heels of the highly successful US visit, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led another high-powered delegation to France. By all accounts, this trip has also been outstanding.
Strong and fruitful relations with the US are the bedrock of foreign policy. But ties with France are equally important and crucial. The French have historic connections with the Arab world. Relations between Riyadh and Paris strengthened almost 50 years ago. Back then, King Faisal and French President Charles de Gaulle in 1967 forged new ties. Ever since, those connections have only become stronger.
This became clear during the deputy crown prince's meetings with President Francois Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. There was a genuine warmth and friendship in these encounters.
France and the Kingdom have the same stand on Middle East issues. Both countries want regional peace and stability. Both deplore the misery of Syria and agree that Bashar Assad cannot be part of any solution. Both agree that Moscow and Tehran have damaged efforts to end the Syrian conflict. Both see eye to eye on Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. And perhaps most crucially, both countries have been the victims of significant acts of terrorism.
Geopolitically Saudi Arabia and France are on the same sheet. In their experience of terrorism, they are on the same line. An effective Saudi-Franco security agreement has been in force since 2008. The Kingdom has shared its counter-terrorism expertise with its allies. France has been a significant beneficiary. Relations between the security forces of both countries are close. They present a united front against the terror menace. French Sen. Nathalie Goulet this week spoke for fellow legislators when she praised the Kingdom’s anti-terror role and called for even stronger bilateral ties.
The military connection is hardly less important. The Royal Saudi Air Force and navy fly French helicopters and the main warplanes are European Typhoons and Tornado jets. This defense connection is significant.
A key component of Saudi Vision 2030 is the development of a local defense sector. This will see a massive transfer of technology and expertise. It will provide jobs for highly-trained Saudi graduates. It will boost the Kingdom’s role as the major regional manufacturing power. The French were every bit as interested as the Americans in the significant opportunities available here.
What clearly impressed the French was that the deputy crown prince came in person to explain Vision 2030. He brought with him top-level ministers and officials. The delegation had answers to all the questions the French posed. It was made clear how the extraordinary ambitions of Vision 2030 will be achieved. The foundational role of the National Transformation Program was set out plainly.
The opportunities for corporate France to assist in the radical strengthening of the Saudi economy were obvious. It is ranked as the Kingdom’s eighth most important trading partner. It is the 15th largest customer for Saudi exports. French-Saudi trade reached 7 billion euros in 2015, with the Kingdom the world number one exporter of oil to France. It is equally significant that France is the third biggest investor in the Kingdom. Its investments currently stand at $15.3 billion. By the same token, three percent of Saudi investments are in France. Gulf Cooperation Council investments in France are no less compelling. Some 30 percent of GCC’s overseas commitments are in the French economy.
These figures demonstrate the opportunities for both countries. Prince Mohammed has cleared the decks for foreign investment. Strategic overseas investors are essential for Vision 2030. The private sector’s share of the economy will increase from 40 percent to 65 percent in the next 14 years. That will only be achieved through the participation of foreign companies. This is being encouraged by benign regulation, fast-track bureaucratic processes, a clear commercial code, attractive incentives and competitive tax codes.
The Kingdom takes seriously its responsibilities as a member of the World Trade Organization. Foreign companies can arrive and work on their own account or in partnership with Saudi businesses. Participation in the Kingdom’s bond and equity markets is open to the world’s largest fund managers.
In the wake of the deputy crown prince’s successful US tour, officials have been busy ironing out the details of deals. That process is now being repeated in Riyadh and Paris. The genius of these two personal visits is that they have unlocked the enthusiasm of two of the Kingdom’s most important geopolitical partners. The Americans and French have been galvanized by the ambitions of Vision 2030. They are now busy organizing their own participation in it.

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