PARIS — Top French and Saudi leaders will huddle Wednesday in Paris to discuss projects worth billions of euros, as France tightens relations with the conservative kingdom despite persistent criticism of its human rights record.
French President Francois Hollande will host Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Prince Mohamed bin Salman after the inaugural meeting of a Franco-Saudi committee that is to discuss proposed projects in the aeronautics, nuclear power, health and investment sectors.
France and Saudi Arabia have been reinforcing their links as Riyadh seeks to broaden ties with top Western powers beyond traditional allies the United States.
The gathering in Paris comes hard on the heels of Hollande's visit to Riyadh in May when he appeared at a summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, making him the first Western leader to attend.
Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Hollande, who had a personal meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Salman during his visit. The French president was also the first Western leader to meet with the monarch after a major reshuffle in the kingdom's top leadership.
After the summit, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced Saudi Arabia — the Arab world's largest economy — and France were in talks regarding 20 projects potentially worth tens of billions of euros.
It is unclear if the Saudi visit this week will yield concrete signed contracts, but Hollande said in May that announcements on deals between the two nations could come as soon as June.
After months of negotiations, Paris and Riyadh concluded a deal last year over the sale of French weapons to Lebanon, which were paid for with a $3-billion (2.6-billion-euro) donation from Saudi Arabia. The first deliveries of the arms started in April.
Bilateral trade between France and Saudi Arabia has boomed in recent years, reaching more than 10 billion euros in 2014, according to French officials.
At the same time Saudi Arabia has been under international pressure, including from Washington and Paris, to drop a sentence of 1,000 lashes for a renowned human rights activist and blogger.
Raif Badawi was given the first 50 lashes in January of his sentence for insulting Islam, triggering an uproar in the West.
Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP that Saudi Arabia uses its economic muscle to intimidate countries out of taking a stand on its human rights abuses.
"The French should use their relationship both to improve their economic situation, but they should then try to use that leverage to convince the Saudis to improve on their (rights) record," Coogle said.
Saudi Arabia has also faced criticism over its willingness to use the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the kingdom was among the world's top three executioners in 2014.
While in Riyadh for the Gulf summit in May, Hollande called for an end to the use of capital punishment in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which had executed 102 locals and foreigners by mid-June, compared with 87 during all of 2014, according to an AFP count.
Just hours before Hollande's arrival May 5 in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom beheaded five foreigners for murder and robbery, adding to what Amnesty International has called a "macabre spike" in the number of executions in the country.