Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman warned at a summit Tuesday of a threat from Iran as guest of honour President Francois Hollande said France was “by the side” of Gulf nations.
In a clear reference to Iran, the Saudi monarch spoke of the need to confront an external threat that “aims to expand control and impose its hegemony”, threatening regional stability and creating “sectarian sedition”.
Hollande, the first Western leader to attend a GCC summit, said France shares the dangers facing the region and he had come “to affirm the commitment of France to be by your side”.
The Riyadh summit brought together leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
All but Oman are in the Saudi-led Sunni coalition that on March 26 launched air strikes in Yemen against Iran-backed Al Houthi militiamen and their allies who seized large parts of the country including Sana’a.
Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to Riyadh when the rebels advanced on his southern refuge Aden.
Concern has mounted over the air campaign, which has continued despite the coalition announcing late last month it was moving on to a new phase.
The United Nations says at least 1,200 people have been killed in Yemen since March 19, and has repeatedly warned that the already impoverished Arabian Peninsula state faces a major humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia has said it is considering temporary halts in air strikes to allow aid deliveries.
Hollande told the summit France supports coalition efforts “to ensure the stability of Yemen”.
His visit comes as Paris strengthens its political and economic relations with the oil- and gas-rich Gulf monarchies.
He arrived in Riyadh from GCC member Qatar after attending the signing of a 6.3-billion-euro ($7-billion) deal between French aerospace firm Dassault and Qatari defence officials.
The agreement includes an order for 24 Rafale fighter jets, with an option on a further 12.
On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris and Riyadh are also discussing 20 economic projects worth “tens of billions of euros”.
Hollande’s Riyadh trip comes just over a week before the GCC leaders visit their traditional ally Washington.
President Barack Obama called that meeting to brainstorm on reducing regional conflicts and to try to allay Gulf fears over any US rapprochement with Iran.
Gulf leaders wanted Hollande to visit before the Washington summit to show they have a faithful ally in France, “and they ask the same thing from Obama”, a senior French official said.
Most GCC countries are also part of a US-led air coalition targeting Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Security was high in Riyadh Tuesday after Daesh threats to attack the kingdom, with green-bereted Royal Guards manning checkpoints and a sniffer dog checking vehicles.
Both Paris and Washington have sought to reassure the Gulf states about an international accord being finalised over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Gulf fears Iran could still develop an atomic bomb under the deal that would limit its nuclear capabilities in return for lifting crippling international sanctions.
Tehran denies trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Before Hollande, the only other foreign leader invited to a GCC summit was Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Saudi Arabia this week before security talks in France.
On Monday after Hollande met Salman a joint French-Saudi declaration “stressed the need to achieve by June 30, a robust (nuclear) agreement that is lasting, verifiable, indisputable and binding for Iran” which must “ensure” it would not develop an atomic bomb.
On Yemen, they stressed the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2216 calling on the rebels to withdraw from all areas they have seized since July 2014.
A source familiar with the situation said France has provided the Saudi-led coalition with satellite imagery of Yemen.