Saudi prince, Macron hail warming ties, but differences lurk

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, previously dined with Macron at Paris's Louvre museum on Sunday night after flying in on his first trip to France as heir to the Saudi throne
AFP

Paris (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and French President Emmanuel Macron hailed warming ties Tuesday and agreed on the need to curb Tehran’s “expansionism” in the Middle East, but conceded differences over the key issue of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman also joined Macron in taking a tough line over the weekend’s alleged chemical attack in Syria, as the de facto Saudi leader wrapped up a three-day visit to Paris with a gala dinner at the Elysee Palace.

The prince’s first visit to France as heir to the Saudi throne, which saw companies ink draft agreements worth $18 billion (14.5 billion euros), sought to deepen relations between the young leaders despite underlying frictions.

“This relationship has been slightly on the back-burner over the past decade… either to pursue other relationships in the region or seeing Saudi Arabia exclusively as a customer for big contracts,” Macron said alongside the 32-year-old prince at a press conference.

“France believes we must preserve the structure of the Iranian nuclear deal, but it must be complemented by the work that has been done on limiting Iran’s ballistic activity and its regional expansionism,” he added.

Macron, 40, has walked a diplomatic tightrope in talks with the reformist prince as he seeks to bolster ties with the world’s top crude exporter, while also managing relations with the kingdom’s arch-nemesis Iran.

As US President Donald Trump threatens to tear up a 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran, Macron has sought to convince the Saudi prince that some agreement to curb Tehran’s atomic ambitions is better than no deal at all.

“On the subject of Iran, we have different tactical views on the deal… but a coherent strategic vision,” Macron said.

– Smiles and selfies –

The gala dinner also hosted Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who tweeted a cheerful selfie with Macron and Prince Mohammed.

Earlier on Monday, Hariri tweeted another selfie with the prince and Moroccan King Mohammed VI, showing the three leaders smiling and dressed casually. “No comment,” read the caption.

The photo op appeared designed to send a message of reconciliation after Hariri was allegedly pressured to resign by the Saudi prince during a trip to Riyadh last November, causing a crisis which Macron helped defuse.

Macron’s mediation, which led Hariri to travel to Paris and then rescind his resignation, was seen by analysts as exposing the limits of Prince Mohammed’s authority.

“This period of ambiguity and confusion is now behind us thanks to the efforts from all sides and the personal implication of President Macron,” Moueen Merhebi, an MP in Hariri’s party, told AFP in Beirut. 

Macron and Prince Mohammed met for nearly three hours Sunday at the Louvre museum, where they visited an exhibition of 19th century painter Eugene Delacroix, creator of the famous “Liberty Leading The People” painting.

The canvas features a bare-breasted woman holding the French tricolore, an image that would be banned in Saudi Arabia for its nudity and its subversive political message.

– Music and cinema –

The gallery tour underscored a central theme of the visit: deepening cultural ties that will see Saudi officials call on French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra.

The kingdom also revealed on Monday that it will enter short films at next month’s Cannes film festival for the first time, a further sign of Prince Mohammed’s modernising mission.

The two leaders plan to work on a “strategic document” involving a series of contracts to be signed by Macron during a visit to Saudi Arabia later this year, the French leader’s office said.

Talks between the men also covered Syria, where Macron and Trump are threatening military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad over alleged chemical weapons attacks. 

– Rights abuses –

Prince Mohammed visit is part of a global tour that has already seen him travel to the United States, Britain and Egypt as he seeks to project a more moderate vision of Saudi Arabia, typically associated in the West with exporting jihadist ideology.

After Paris, he will head to Madrid, before travelling home ahead of the next Arab League summit meeting, on April 15 in Riyadh.

Amid the flurry of announcements in France, campaigners are also mobilised to keep attention focused on French weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and rights abuses in the country.

The kingdom is the lead partner in a coalition of countries bombing and blockading Yemen, where a combination of fighting, disease and food shortages has led the UN to dub it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Macron said France will host a conference to boost humanitarian support for war-ravaged Yemen later this year.

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