French president visits Qatar, deepening ties to Gulf

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — French President Francois Hollande, seeking to strengthen political and business ties with the energy-rich Gulf states, arrived in Qatar on Monday at the start of a two-nation trip that will include a visit to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The trip comes as France and other world powers work to finalize a lasting nuclear deal with Iran by the end of June. Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies fear a deal and the sanctions relief it would bring could further embolden Iran, their regional rival.

The centerpiece of Hollande's visit to Qatar is the signing of a 6.3 billion euro ($7 billion) deal to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets to the natural gas-rich nation. The agreement, announced Thursday, makes Qatar the third overseas buyer of the delta-winged Rafale, manufactured by France's Dassault Aviation.

He was expected to hold talks with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani during his visit before departing later in the day for Saudi Arabia.

France and Qatar have deep economic ties. French energy giant Total SA is a major player in the OPEC member's energy industry, with interests in oil and liquefied natural gas projects.

Underscoring the importance of the energy sector, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne met separately with both the emir and the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani, on Monday. His talks with the emir focused on areas of joint cooperation and "prospects for enhancing them," according to the official Qatar News Agency.

Qatari state-linked investors, meanwhile, have taken a keen interest in France, pumping cash into luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and football team Paris Saint-Germain. The country's state-backed Qatar Airways is a large buyer of jetliners made by French-based Airbus, with 180 of its planes on order.

The Rafale sale could add momentum to France's efforts to export the fighter. India announced plans to buy 36 Rafale jets earlier this month and Egypt bought 24 in February. The United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, is also considering buying the plane.

Hollande's visit to Qatar comes just days after a French prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French construction company Vinci seriously mistreated migrant workers in Qatar as the country prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. Vinci denies the allegations. Its Qatar subsidiary QDVC has contracts worth 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) in Qatar.

On Tuesday, Hollande will be the guest of honor at a meeting of the GCC in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, according to his office. The GCC also includes Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Hollande is expected to hold bilateral meetings with a number of regional leaders during his visit.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Arab nations carrying out airstrikes against Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis in Yemen, where a French hostage, a woman kidnapped on Feb. 24, is being held.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and France are also members of the U.S.-led coalition targeting the Islamic State militant group with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.


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