Saudi prince meets Macron amid regional tensions

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

Paris (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was set for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday at the end of a three-day trip that has seen the two men discuss war and crisis in the Middle East as well as sources of friction between themselves.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, will wrap up the visit with a gala dinner at the Elysee Palace and formal discussions with Macron on Tuesday evening that are expected to cover the war in Syria.

On Monday evening, the Saudi heir held a surprise meeting with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well Moroccan King Mohammed VI, which was revealed in a tweet by Hariri showing the three leaders smiling and dressed casually. “No comment,” read the caption.

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

“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 on Tuesday. 

Macron’s role in helping mediate in the Lebanese leadership crisis, 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 sequence — as well as Macron’s planned trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-regional rival — is thought to have come up during a first round of talks between Macron and his Saudi visitor on Sunday night.

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

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

Delacroix’s work was inspired by the 1830 July Revolution that saw protestors overthrow the inept French royal king Charles X.

– Music and cinema –

But the gallery tour and dinner at the Louvre also underscored one of main themes of the visit so far, namely 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 would enter short films at the Cannes film festival next month for the first time, a further sign of Prince Mohammed’s mission to modernise his country.

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, his office said.

Talks between the men on Tuesday are also expected to cover the war in Syria, where Macron and US President Donald Trump are threatening military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad over alleged chemical weapons attacks. 

The prince’s delegation was also attending a forum on Tuesday with French business leaders, which is expected to lead to a host of agreements pledging future economic deals. 

– Rights abuses –

The prince’s 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.

Three out of four French people believe it is “unacceptable” for France, one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, according to a YouGov poll.