Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince travels Sunday to France on the next leg of his global tour, extending his diplomatic charm offensive as he seeks to project a new liberal image of his conservative kingdom.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day official visit, which starts Monday, comes after a weeks-long tour of the United States, Britain and Egypt, where the self-styled moderniser courted business leaders and signed a host of multimillion dollar deals.
French President Emmanuel Macron treads a delicate line as he hosts the king-in-waiting in a visit expected to focus on cultural ties and investments, as well as the long-running war in Yemen, dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“This is not a traditional state visit,” a source close to the crown prince’s delegation told AFP.
“It is about forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals.”
More than a dozen memorandums of understanding in tourism, energy and transportation are set to be signed between French and Saudi organisations, another source close to the 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.
– ‘Enduring scepticism’ –
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.
His global tour is meant to “garner recognition and acceptance as the de facto leader and next king of Saudi Arabia,” Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University, told AFP.
“This is a signal both to domestic as well as international observers that he is in charge and can leave the country for several weeks without any challenge to his authority,” he added.
The 32-year-old prince, well-known as MBS, has used his global tour to project his dazzling 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.
“There is little genuine affection for Saudi Arabia across the West,” Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.
“MBS’s clear break with Saudi taboos on women and religious tolerance have been welcomed, but with a fair amount of enduring scepticism.”
– Underlying tensions –
Saudi officials project strong ties between Prince Mohammed and Macron, both young leaders undertaking the difficult task of reforming their countries, 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.
“There were tensions when MBS reportedly attempted to challenge Macron in his role in the Hariri episode, but later MBS had to back down,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi scholar at Yale Law School.
“It’s never easy for an authoritarian like him to accept that.”
In another embarrassment, a French arrest warrant was issued in December against the crown prince’s sister for allegedly ordering her bodyguard to beat up a worker at her Paris apartment in 2016.
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.
Macron also faces seething criticism from 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.
But there are several areas of convergence, including anti-terrorism cooperation as France mourns the latest jihadist rampage in the towns of Carcassonne and Trebes last month where a 25-year-old Islamist killed four people.
The incident triggered a new debate in France over radical Salafist interpretations of Islam which originated in Saudi Arabia.
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.