RIYADH (AFP) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Riyadh on Tuesday for talks with Saudi King Abdullah after warning of an extremist backlash if Middle East peace talks do not commence soon.
Abdullah greeted Sarkozy late in the afternoon at King Khalid International Airport and the two then headed for the king’s desert farm in Riyadh’s outskirts, where Sarkozy will spend the night.
In a visit billed as more personal and aimed at tightening bonds, the two leaders are expected to review key regional political issues, with the impasse over Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at the top of the list.
“The priority is to restart as soon as possible the peace process,” Sarkozy told Saudi newspaper Ar-Riyadh in an interview published on Tuesday.
“It is urgent because the current deadlock plays into the hands of extremists and each day the chance of peace is slipping away a little,” he said.
The 85-year-old Saudi ruler, who revived his 2002 two-state-based Arab Peace Initiative earlier this year, is said to be frustrated at the lack of progress towards reviving talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Sarkozy is taking a higher profile on Middle East issues, meetings the leaders of Iraq, Israel and Syria in Paris during the past eight days.
No announcements are planned by either side during the visit, but Sarkozy and Abdullah are also expected to discuss French bids to sell helicopters, naval frigates and high-speed trains to Saudi Arabia, which is ploughing as much as 400 billion dollars (266.7 billion euros) into national development during the next five years.
Also on the agenda is a French-Saudi agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation, which officials on both sides say is pending final reviews and could be signed within a few months.
Though official, the visit is “personal in nature,” to “widen the scope of relations,” said a Saudi official.
The two leaders would discuss particularly the Middle East peace process, Iran’s nuclear threat, the situation in Iraq and other issues of mutual interest, he said.
Riyadh is particularly hoping Sarkozy can help get peace talks going after a “disappointing” effort by Washington, he said.
Commenting on talks last week, Sarkozy told Ar-Riyadh he called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt settlements and on Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to remain “committed” to 2010 elections.
“The deadlock in which we find ourselves today is extremely worrying,” Sarkozy said.
“But sometimes in these moments of great tensions solutions arise, because they give the actors the courage and strength to move forward.
“It is for us to help them,” Sarkozy added, citing in particular the United States, European Union and Russia.
One idea up for discussion in Riyadh is a reported Sarkozy idea for France to host Palestinian leaders and the leaders of Israel, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, in addition to officials from the UN and European Union, at a peace conference.
“I told (Syrian) President (Bashar al-)Assad … and Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu: France is ready to facilitate the resumption of talks, if the parties consider that we can be helpful,” he told Ar-Riyadh.
Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, echoed his comments ahead of talks with Abbas in Amman later on Tuesday and with Israeli officials the next day in Jerusalem.
“I wish to insist on the urgency of restarting negotiations so that we can reach the aim of creating a Palestinian state, despite the difficulties,” Kouchner told the Palestinian Al-Quds daily. “We have to find ways to surmount the current obstacles.”
At the same time, France’s foreign ministry warned the Palestinians against seeking to unilaterally declare independence in the West Bank.
“A unilateral step could prejudice the establishment of this state that we all wish for so much,” said spokesman Bernard Valero.
It is Sarkozy’s third trip to Saudi Arabia in two years, underscoring France’s ambition to elevate its stature in the Gulf region.
He is scheduled to leave on Wednesday afternoon, make a brief stop in Qatar — where his wife Carla Bruni is visiting — and head back to Paris that evening.