Last week, Saudi King Abdullah was all set to press ahead with a program of uranium enrichment, in defiance of repeated US requests to abandon it – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 452 of July 9 revealed. A row of accords for French technological assistance was drafted, ready for the king to approve in Paris this week.
But in the meantime, as our Washington sources now report, the US stamped hard on the Saudi plan with the result that senior Saudi figures headed by the king abruptly called off their planned trips to Paris.
Abdullah's visit was scheduled for Monday, July 12 for the formal purpose of joining President Nicolas Sarkozy in previewing an exhibit of Saudi Arabian archeological treasures at the Louvre.
But behind closed doors, they had intended concluding a set of accords providing for French engineering and technical teams to run the new King Abdullah Nuclear & Renewable Energy City near Riyadh and sales of French nuclear equipment and technology.
The Nuclear City is the projected site of the Saudi uranium enrichment program – as we reported in detail last week. (Saudi Arabia, Jordan Flout US on Nuclear Programs – Saudi King Gets Set to Enrich Weapons-Grade Uranium with French Assistance.)
The strong message of displeasure conveyed in contacts between the White House in Washington and the Royal Court in Riyadh was underlined more subtly by a reference in official American media outlets, such as the Voice of America, to an event from the distant past.
The unique US role as Saudi protector at risk
In February 1945, President Roosevelt hosted King Ibn Saud bin Abdel Aziz aboard the naval cruiser USS Quincy as it lay anchored in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. It was the first time that the American and Saudi leaders had ever met. Their encounter was destined to shape the future relationship between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for it was then that Washington assumed the mantle of protector of the Al Saud throne.
The reference was well understood in Riyadh. It was taken to mean that if the Saudi king persisted in his unilateral nuclear path and turned to France for assistance, the Royal House risked forfeiting the United States as its historic protector and being thrown out of the US nuclear policy loop for the Middle East.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that the Obama administration addressed an equally stern message to Jordan's King Abdullah II, to ignore the green light he had received from Riyadh to expand the mining of his uranium resources and start building his kingdom up into the nuclear fuel hub of the Middle East.
The last thing the Obama administration wants to see this summer is a new French-backed Saudi-Jordanian nuclear power rising in the region alongside Israel and Iran. The Jordanian monarch was therefore warned to put his nuclear plans on ice and forget about expanded uranium prospecting and the construction of the kingdom's first nuclear reactor with French help.
The first outward sign of this turnabout came on Saturday, July 10, when King Abdullah's trip to Paris was officially called off amid some hemming and hawing.
Saudis, Jordan backtrack on nuclear goals
The visit was postponed to "the earliest time convenient to both rulers," according to the Saudi SPA news agency. An unnamed official in Paris countered that the visit had never been formally approved. Then Riyadh cancelled a trip to the French capital by Hashim Yamani, president of the Nuclear City, who was supposed to have signed the nuclear contracts on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Two days later, Jordan's King Abdullah sent his Minister of Information Nabil Sharif to tell the press that US-Jordanian relations were "excellent" and their negotiations on Jordan's nuclear program were going smoothly.
The king needed urgently to scotch the rumors flying around Amman over the weekend that he had succumbed to American pressure to freeze his plans to cooperate with France on the development of the kingdom's uranium reserves and the construction of a nuclear reactor.
Tuesday, July 13, it was Paris's turn to comment, albeit with diplomatic caution, on the Obama administration's hands-off signal to France not to get involved in the two Arab kingdoms' nuclear aspirations.
"There is no US or Israeli 'veto' against Jordan establishing a nuclear reactor," France's Ambassador in Amman, Corinne Breuzé, told journalists, who were summoned to the embassy on the pretext of a briefing for France's National Day, Bastille Day.
Ambassador Breuzé stressed her country's commitment and support for Jordan in the political, economic and cultural fields and highlighted France's willingness to assist Jordan's nuclear program.
"There is no pretext for Jordan not to build its own nuclear reactor," Breuzé said, noting that Jordan is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rules. "France respects Jordan's commitment to those agreements," the French diplomat stressed.
France would be happy to build Jordan's first nuclear reactor
Regarding reports of international pressure on Jordan to refrain from enriching its own uranium and to buy what it needed on the international market, Breuzé noted: "Any country that wishes to invest in its own uranium resources must have the technological capabilities for that, but we must not go too far in hypothetical future scenarios."
The message the ambassador was sending was that France understands Jordan has been coerced by Washington to temporarily set aside its plans to manufacture nuclear fuel. But she was reminding Amman that at the end of the day, Jordan will need France's help for promoting its plans because it will not be forthcoming from the US.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Paris sources in Paris say that the American moves to distance France from the Middle East nuclear arena will further impair Sarkozy's standing at home and damage US-French relations. After waiting patiently for three years, the French president had counted heavily on a Middle East breakthrough for France's nuclear industry to boost his sinking political fortunes.
It started out as a pact proposed by him to King Abdullah when they met in Paris in June 2007. When Sarkozy visited Riyadh in January 2008, he carried a French draft accord in his pocket.
The Saudis held back for a while, asking for time for a formal review of their nuclear policy. It ended with an announcement in April 2010 of the forthcoming establishment of the King Abdullah Nuclear & Renewable Energy City outside Riyadh.
Sarkozy let down on hopes of coup to lift his image
The French president had to wait until early June to hear that the Saudi King Abdullah was in favor of the ambitious French-Saudi nuclear plan. But first, the king needed to travel to Washington to hear first hand from President Barack Obama exactly how the Americans proposed to put a stop to the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudi king came out of the encounter on June 29 disappointed and worried.
When Sarkozy learned of this outcome from the French embassy in Washington, he was sure his patience had paid off and his nuclear plan was now cleared for takeoff.
The French president is badly in need of a major success. His approval rating has plunged to 33 percent (according to a July 13 opinion poll) – an all-time low since he took office in 2007.
He has his back up against the wall over accusations that his election campaign received 150,000 euros in illegal party financing from the richest woman in France, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, which come from her former accountant. A major deal which would get important economic and military interests behind him at home might have helped him weather the crisis. Even photos of him receiving the Saudi King right after Abdullah was closeted with the US president would have given a lift to his sagging image with the French public.
But those expectations were dashed by Washington. The disappointment has left him in worse straits than before.
For now, Washington has been able to thwart Saudi and Jordanian aspirations in which France had invested such high hopes. But the question is – for how long?