Sarkozy in Saudi Arabia to deepen business ties

( dpa )- French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Saudi Arabia Sunday evening for talks on expanding business and defence ties, the political crisis in Lebanon and the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme .

The ministers of economy, education and defence are accompanying Sarkozy - which reflects the main areas of cooperation that the French seek to expand.

Sarkozy is also accompanied by a delegation including the heads of of major French firms who would like to have a share in Saudi allocations worth 500-billion-dollars for projects in the non- defence fields.

"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," Sarkozy told the pan-Arab al- Hayat daily in an interview published Sunday.

Electricity and water projects are coveted by French firms.

The French are also vying 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 the 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.

Sarkozy is expected to warn the Saudis against Iran's nuclear ambitions and its threat to regional security. This will coincide with similar warnings by US President George Bush during a tour of the Middle East.

After Saudi Arabia, Sarkozy will head to Qatar and 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.

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