French president visits Qatar for talks with emir, plane deal at start of Gulf trip

DOHA, Qatar – 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 neighbouring 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 is 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. 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 Qatar sale could add momentum to France’s efforts to export the Rafale. 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.

On Tuesday, Hollande will be the guest of honour 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 France’s only hostage, a woman kidnapped on February 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.