JEDDAH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) receives French President Emmanuel Macron in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah yesterday. - AFP

JEDDAH: French President Emmanuel Macron met Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in Jeddah yesterday to discuss regional stability, in particular crisis-hit Lebanon. Macron landed in the kingdom's Red Sea city after visits to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as part of a short Gulf tour. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with Macron, who wore a face mask, welcoming him at the royal palace before talks and a lunch together.

He becomes one of the first Western leaders to meet with Prince Mohammed in the kingdom since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed. Dialogue with Saudi Arabia was necessary to "work for stability in the region", Macron said. During his discussions with Prince Mohammed, Macron pleaded the case of Lebanon, where an economic crisis has been exasperated by a diplomatic row sparked in October between Beirut and some Gulf states - in particular Saudi Arabia which had blocked imports.

His efforts are likely to receive a boost by the resignation of Lebanese information minister Georges Kordahi whose remarks on the Saudi intervention in Yemen's war sparked the row. Macron on Friday welcomed Kordahi's departure, saying he hopes to "re-engage all Gulf countries in relations with Lebanon". The French president has spearheaded international efforts to help Lebanon out of its worst-ever economic downturn.

IN THE AIR: A French twin-engine, canard delta wing, multirole fighter aircraft Rafale flies in the air. The United Arab Emirates has signed a deal for 80 French-made Rafale fighter jets, the biggest international order ever made for the warplanes. - AFP

The country's fragile government has been struggling to secure international aid, particularly from wealthy Arab powers. Kordahi said Friday his resignation, which he had initially ruled out, became inevitable earlier this week when he met Lebanon's prime minister. "I understood from Prime Minister Najib Mikati... that the French want my resignation before Macron's visit to Riyadh because it could maybe help them start a dialogue with Saudi officials over Lebanon and the future of bilateral ties," Kordahi told reporters.

Lebanon's ties with Gulf states have also grown increasingly strained in recent years due to the growing influence of Iran-backed Lebanese movement Hezbollah. Macron said France had a role to play in the region. "But how can we work for regional stability and on Lebanon and many other issues while ignoring the first Gulf state in terms of geography and size?" he said, referring to the kingdom which is the Arab world's largest economy, and the world's biggest crude exporter.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates signed a record 14-billion-euro contract for 80 Rafale warplanes and committed billions of euros in other deals as French President Emmanuel Macron kicked off a Gulf tour on Friday. The biggest international order ever made for the French jets came as Macron held talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed at the start of a two-day trip which will also take in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The resource-rich UAE, one of the French defense industry's biggest customers, also inked an order for 12 Caracal military transport helicopters for a total bill of more than 17 billion euros. "French engagement in the region, active cooperation in the fight against terrorism and the clear positions we have taken have allowed us to grow closer with the United Arab Emirates," Macron told journalists in Dubai. "And at a time when questions are being asked about other long-term partners, I think this reinforces the position of France," he added, describing France as a "solid" and "trustworthy" ally that "sticks to its commitments".

Abu Dhabi's Mubadala sovereign wealth fund also pledged eight billion euros in investments in French businesses, while the licence of the UAE capital's branch of the Louvre art gallery was extended for 10 years to 2047. The Emirates was the fifth biggest customer for the French defense industry with 4.7 billion euros from 2011-2020, according to a parliamentary report.

'Historic contract'

The Rafale order, signed on Friday while Macron met with Sheikh Mohammed at Dubai's Expo site, is the biggest made internationally for the Dassault Aviation aircraft since it entered service in 2004. It follows the collapse of a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Australia in September that left Paris fuming after Canberra negotiated a new defense pact with London and Washington.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly called it a "historic contract" which will contribute "directly to regional stability". The F4 model Rafales, currently under development, will be delivered from 2027. "This is an outcome of the strategic partnership between the two countries, consolidating their capacity to act together for their autonomy and security," the French presidency said in a statement.

By snapping up the fighter aircraft the UAE is eclipsing the fleets of Gulf rival Qatar, which has bought 36 of the planes, and Egypt which ordered 24 in 2015 and 30 earlier this year. The new order will replace the UAE's 60 Mirage 2000-9 jets bought in 1998, and comes 10 years after failed negotiations by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The Rafale has since made a breakthrough in the international market despite competition from American and other European manufacturers. It now has six foreign clients including Qatar, India, Egypt, Greece and Croatia. - AFP