Saudi Arabia’s crown prince arrived in France on Sunday for the next leg of a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image as he pursues his drive to reform the conservative petrostate.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman will hold meetings with President Emmanuel Macron during his two-day official visit starting Monday — his first trip to France as the heir to the Saudi throne.
Macron will walk a diplomatic tightrope with the young prince in talks set to focus on cultural ties and investments but also the war in Yemen, dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the kingdom’s arch-nemesis Iran.
The 32-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, was received at the Bourget airport near Paris on Sunday morning by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The trip follows a coast-to-coast tour of the United States as well as visits to Britain and Egypt, where the prince courted a host of business tycoons and struck multimillion-dollar deals from defence to entertainment.
Around 18 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed at an official Saudi-France CEO Forum on Tuesday, 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, the source added.
Aside from meetings with the French president, prime minister and trade officials, the prince is also considering a visit to the Paris-based tech start-up campus Station F, the Arab World Institute and a concert in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, the source said.
“This is not a traditional state visit,” another source close to the Saudi delegation told AFP, without revealing the time of his arrival on Sunday. “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 world’s top crude exporter pumps billions of dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify its economy.
‘Young, visionary, ambitious’
Prince Mohammed’s tour is meant to project “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 said.
The tour comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as the prince consolidates power to a degree well beyond that wielded by previous rulers.
The prince has used his global tour to project his reforms — including the historic lifting of a ban on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts — as part of his pledge to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.
Backed by high-power lobbying and public relations firms, the prince is seeking to rebrand Saudi Arabia as a modernist oasis instead of an austere kingdom known for exporting jihadist ideology and subjugating women.
Saudi officials project strong relations 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.”
But the trip follows a period of underlying tensions, with Macron seeking to bolster ties with the Arab world’s biggest economy while also managing other relationships with Middle Eastern nations.
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 12th.
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 last 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.