Sarkozy in Saudi Arabia to deepen "strategic partnership"

With nuclear ambitions, lucrative business opportunities and ballooning petro-dollar budgets, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia is attracting world leaders from US President George Bush to his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - a potentate with increasing regional and international clout - will play host to Sarkozy later on Sunday and to Bush on Monday.

The French president - on the first official visit to Saudi Arabia since he took office in May - is scrambling to secure a share in Saudi Arabia's expanding economic pie and develop the "strategic partnership" between both countries.

"The visit aims at adding a new dimension to our strategic partnership with Riyadh and revamping bilateral relations to adapt them to current challenges and to meet the kingdom's new priorities," Sarkozy said in an interview with the pan-Arab al-Hayat daily published Sunday.

Eyeing a Saudi budget estimated at 500 billion dollars for projects under study in the non-defence fields, Sarkozy said: "French firms are able to respond to aspirations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in all areas, particularly energy, transport with railways and air transport and water distribution projects."

French firms do not want to be left out of multibillion-dollar projects currently under consideration for a high-speed train link between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and a railway link between the capital Riyadh and the Red-Sea port of Jeddah.

Contracts to expand the French-built Jeddah Airport and upgrade Saudi Airlines' fleet - now being negotiated - will be given a boost by Sarkozy's talks in Riyadh.

Electricity and water projects are coveted by French firms.

The French also seek to vie for a share in the big pie of education spending, to which 25 per cent has been allocated in the Saudi budget.

Education and training will be of the main pillars in the French- Saudi partnership, Sarkozy said.

Both countries are expected to sign two agreements cementing cooperation in technical training and university education. French universities are to receive more Saudi students under the new agreements.

In line with its long-standing policy of diversifying sources of arms purchases and military technology, Riyadh seeks to foster cooperation with Paris.

A security deal is expected to be signed allowing Saudi and French armies to mount joint military exercises in case "one say they needed to fight side by side," French ambassador to Riyadh, Bertrand Besancenot told reporters Thursday.

Among the topics for discussion during the visit are the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme and Saudi ambition to develop its own civilian nuclear power programme.

After Saudi Arabia, Sarkozy will head to the United Arab Emirates, where he is expected to sign a nuclear cooperation deal.

The French president said the sale of such technology would foster trust between the West and the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia would want to negotiate a similar agreement and the French are rubbing their hands with glee for a potentially lucrative nuclear deal. ( Dpa )

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