Considerable attention is being paid to the attendees at the two-day summit of Arab Gulf States and the United States held in Washington and Camp David this week. Even more attention is focused on who is not attending – King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain.
Commentators ponder if their absence is a snub against the United States for its tolerant policies toward Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The pundits should ponder no longer and look instead at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting held just last week on May 5 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The guest of honor was France’s president, François Hollande, who made history by being the first Western guest to address the GCC.
Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 agreement that President Obama is defending in Washington this week were on the top of the GCC agenda. Hollande and King Salman issued a tough joint statement on May 4: “France and Saudi Arabia confirmed the necessity to reach a robust, lasting, verifiable, undisputed and binding deal with Iran.” The declaration sent a strong message to the Iranians – and American negotiators.
The French and Saudi leaders had a private dinner in the king’s palace, and Hollande met with the Saudi cabinet.2
King Salman was very clear about Saudi Arabia’s view of Iran hegemonic goals and the P5+1’s nuclear deal with Iran under consideration. Iran, he warned, was seeking to “spread their influence and impose their authority” on the region in order to “destabilize [its] security…and stability and spread sectarian strife.” He called on Western nations “to set stricter rules” on the deal that would “guarantee the region’s security and prevent it from plunging into a [nuclear] arms race.”3
Hollande responded to the king, saying that France shared the dangers facing the region and he had come “to affirm the commitment of France to be by your side.” He added, “I know that Iran is at the heart of your preoccupations.”4
Understanding or Hysteria?
Compare Hollande’s empathy with the statements made in an interview on April 30 by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he dismissed such concerns: “There’s a lot of hysteria about this deal. People really need to look at the facts, look at the science of what is behind those facts…. We ask people to measure carefully what the agreement is, and wait until we have an agreement to make all these judgements.”5
Hollande also expressed support for the Saudi-led coalition attacks against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen “to ensure the stability of Yemen.” To Gulf Arab leaders, American policy toward the coalition efforts appears much more ambivalent.
The new Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, expressed Saudi Arabia’s affinity to France: “We have common views with regard to the challenges in the region today with Syria, Yemen, Iraq, terrorism and of course Iran’s nuclear program, and there are very large commercial and military ties between our two countries.”6
News of the French successes at the Riyadh GCC summit undoubtedly reached Secretary Kerry. He “changed his schedule at the last minute this week to travel to Riyadh,” Reuters reported. Kerry was also looking to lock in plans for a U.S. summit at Camp David on May 13-14 between Gulf leaders and President Barack Obama.7
As recently detailed by Amb. Freddy Eitan, a former Israeli diplomat, France has a historic antipathy to Iran, and it has been apparent during the nuclear talks. “France favors taking a tough stance toward the Iranians,” Eitan wrote. “The stick of sanctions must be waved during the negotiations, while acting from a position of strength and demanding additional concessions on Tehran’s part.”8
Even as Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman made their way to the U.S. summit as substitutes for Saudi King Salman, they stopped in Paris on their way for talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.9
It is apparent the Saudis have taken note of France’s position and appreciate it.
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