Paris (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince arrives in France Sunday on the next leg of his global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image overseas as he seeks to reform the conservative petrostate.
President Emmanuel Macron will walk a diplomatic tightrope during Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day official visit starting on Monday.
The trip is set to focus on cultural ties and investments as well as the war in Yemen, dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It follows a coast-to-coast tour of the United States as well as Britain and Egypt, where he courted multimillion dollar deals, from defence to entertainment.
Around 14 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed between French and Saudi organisations, a source close to the crown prince’s delegation told AFP.
A Franco-Saudi cooperation deal to develop Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archeological remnants, is also expected to be a central highlight of the visit, he added.
Aside from meetings with the French president, prime minister and trade officials, the heir to the Saudi throne is also considering a visit to the Paris-based tech startup campus Station F and a concert in southern Aix-en-Provence, the source said.
“This is not a traditional state visit,” another source close to the delegation told AFP.
“It is about forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals.”
Macron’s office said the trip would also focus on investment in the digital economy as well as renewable energy, as the oil-rich kingdom invests billions of dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify.
– ‘Open for business’ –
Prince Mohammed seeks to show “Saudi Arabia is open for business,” Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University, told AFP.
“He is marketing Saudi Arabia as a strategic and business partner to the West and a force of stability in the region, as compared to rival Iran which he presents as a destabilising force,” he added.
Prince Mohammed’s first visit to France as the heir to the Saudi throne comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as he consolidates power to a level unseen by previous rulers.
The 32-year-old prince, well-known as MBS, has used his global tour to project his reforms including the historic lifting of a ban on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.
Backed by global lobbying and public relations firms, the prince is seeking to rebrand Saudi Arabia from an austere kingdom known for exporting jihadist ideology and subjugating women to a modernist oasis.
Saudi officials project strong ties between Prince Mohammed and Macron, both young leaders undertaking challenging reforms to transform their countries.
“Saudi Arabia is not resetting diplomatic ties with France,” a source close to the Saudi government told AFP.
“The leadership of both countries share much in common. They are both young, visionary and ambitious.”
– Underlying tensions –
But the trip follows a period of underlying tensions.
Macron waded into a regional crisis last November when Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation on live television from Riyadh, apparently under pressure from the crown prince.
Macron invited Hariri to Paris for talks and he has since rescinded his resignation, a development that observers say exposed the limits of the prince’s authority.
Macron also faces seething criticism over the export of arms to Saudi Arabia, including Caesar artillery guns, sniper rifles and armoured vehicles despite the kingdom’s role in the Yemen crisis.
Three out of four French people believe it is “unacceptable” to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, according to a poll last month by independent research group YouGov.
And this week, 10 international rights groups implored Macron to pressure Prince Mohammed over the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
Macron also faces the challenge of bolstering ties with the world’s top crude exporter while managing other regional relationships in the Middle East.
The crown prince has emphasised closer ties with US President Donald Trump just as Macron has sought to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis.
Trump has threatened to abandon the 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran unless improvements are proposed by May 12.
The challenge for Macron is to convince the crown prince that “it is better to have the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran than no deal at all,” Denis Bauchard, of the French Institute of International Relations, told AFP.