RIYADH (AFP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Saudi Arabia's role as "essential" for regional peace Sunday, at the start of a three-nation Gulf Arab tour partly aimed to share France's nuclear expertise.
"Saudi Arabia is an essential element for peace in this turbulent region of the world," he told a press conference in the Saudi capital, after having signed a series of cooperation agreements with the government here.
Sarkozy's visit -- part of his first trip to the region since taking office in May -- comes as US President George W. Bush tours the Middle East to rally support for his policy of isolating Iran over its nuclear programme.
"The interest of this trip is political, economic, cultural and military," Sarkozy told reporters.
Calling King Abdullah a "friend of France", he invited the Saudi monarch to visit the country "whenever he wants."
Delegations from the two countries signed four political and energy cooperation agreements, and outlined infrastructure and military contracts worth nearly 40 billion euros (59 billion dollars), a French official said.
None of the contracts are likely to be finalised by the end of Sarkozy's trip, the French presidency said.
Sarkozy also proposed sending a team from the French Atomic Energy Commission to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks "to work on the question of civilian nuclear (energy)", the French presidency said.
His visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed to "give a new dimension to our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia," Sarkozy told the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily in an interview published Sunday.
"French firms can meet the aspirations of Saudi Arabia in all sectors, namely in energy, transport -- both rail and air -- or water distribution," he said.
The Saudi daily Arab News said cooperation between Saudi Arabia and France was "particularly important at a time when the Middle East is experiencing dangerous crises which risk setting the entire region alight".
"Everything suggests that President Sarkozy's visit to Riyadh will be marked by expanding cooperation in new and important areas between the two countries," it said.
Sarkozy arrived here aboard a presidential Airbus plane shortly after 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), accompanied by six cabinet ministers, including Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defence Minister Herve Morin, as well as a 20-strong business delegation.
He leaves the kingdom Monday, just a few hours before Bush arrives as part of the US leader's own visit to four Gulf states.
The French president held talks with King Abdullah first with delegations from both countries and later one-on-one, after having attended a dinner hosted by the Saudi ruler in his honour.
Sarkozy will Monday address Saudi's Majlis Al Shura, or consultative council, and meet French and Saudi businessmen before heading to gas-rich Qatar.
On Tuesday, he travels to the United Arab Emirates, where France and the UAE are to sign a framework accord for cooperation in developing civilian nuclear energy.
The agreement will be the third signed by France with an Arab country, after accords inked last year with Algeria and Libya.
"The sharing of civilian nuclear (technology) will be one of the foundations of a pact of confidence which the West must forge with the Islamic world," Sarkozy said after signing the agreement with Algeria last month.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »