French President Francois Hollande attends with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, right, the Gulf cooperation council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo: AP)
Hungry for defence deals, France has cosied up to the Gulf monarchies, winning several billion-euro contracts in the process, but its strategy of backing one side in the region's Sunni-Shia power struggle is risky, say experts.
These are boom times for France's defence industry, with the country signing 15 billion euros ($16.7 billion) worth of weapons deals this year -- almost double its 8.1-billion tally for the whole of 2014.
Mounting chaos in the Middle East has prompted the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to arm themselves to the teeth, and they are increasingly reluctant to work with the United States, given its recent efforts to build bridges with their great rival, Iran.
France has leapt into the void. President Francois Hollande travelled to the Gulf this week to sign a 6.3-billion-euro deal with Qatar to supply 24 Rafale combat aircraft, and became the first Western head of state to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council leaders' meeting.
His team hopes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be next in line with orders for arms worth tens of billions of euros.
Last month, France also began supplying weapons to Lebanon as part of a $3-billion, Saudi-funded programme.
"Hollande is a formidable tactician. He has well understood the enormous concern in the Sunni Arab world about the Arab Spring and the sectarianism breaking out in the region," said Pierre Lellouche, a former trade minister from the opposition UMP party.
But in the contest between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, France may have come down too clearly on the side of the latter, analysts warn.
"Is it sensible of France to go with one camp over the other? No. It is preferable to keep a policy of equal distance between the two," said Lellouche.
Instead, Hollande was feted with pomp and ceremony in the Saudi capital Riyadh this week. His lengthy joint statement with King Salman was replete with phrases such as "spirit of friendship", "privileged relations" and "strategic partnership".
"If the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia gets increasingly bitter, the risk is that France will be perceived as endorsing Saudi Arabia's foreign policy," said David Butter of the Chatham House think tank in London.
None of this has gone over well in Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani this week made pointed remarks about Western countries who "come to the region and are proud of having sold billions of dollars or euros of weapons".
"Is this the way to create employment in Western countries? For someone to be employed in an arms factory while people are killed in Baghdad, Damascus or Sanaa?" Rouhani said in the live TV address.
Relations between the Gulf monarchies and the United States have deteriorated over Washington's efforts to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.
Although France has also been involved in the Iran negotiations, it has been more sceptical than the US and pushed for tougher restrictions on Tehran's nuclear programme.
"France is benefiting from the fact that US policy (in the Middle East) has been problematic for some time, that there is no clear policy," said Butter.
Meanwhile, Iran and the Gulf monarchies look increasingly on the verge of all-out war, having backed opposing sides in the Syria and Yemen conflicts, as well as in the unrest in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
The Arab monarchies fear Iran's growing regional influence will get a further boost if it seals an agreement on its nuclear programme at the end of June, which would remove global sanctions on its economy.
If the situation deteriorates further, experts warn that France could face blow-back, not just on the international stage but also at home.
"Hollande must be careful," columnist Jean-Christophe Ploquin wrote in French newspaper La Croix on Tuesday.
A more powerful Saudi Arabia threatens "the expansion of a more rigid and intolerant form of Islam everywhere that Muslims live -- including France."
Paris was left reeling by jihadist attacks in January that killed 17 people, and has seen unprecedented numbers of its citizens leave to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
Many blame the Gulf monarchies for financing and backing radical preachers around the world that have helped lay the ideological ground for jihadist networks.
Extremist versions of Islam "do not come from planet Mars, they come from the Saudis," said Lellouche.