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Saudi crown prince winds down global image-building tour in France

Eric Feferberg, AFP | French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe welcomes the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Hotel de Matignon in Paris on April 9, 2018.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia has embarked on the last leg of his global image-building tour, with a trip to France to strengthen ties. But the trip could be a tough balancing act for French President Emmanuel Macron.

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The start of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s official trip to France began with a cancellation. The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne was due to visit the French start-up campus ‘Station F’ with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, but it was abruptly cancelled in order to “make progress on the nature of the Saudi-French business projects”, a French government statement indicated, laconically.

French industrial and business leaders appeared to be disappointed before negotiations had even begun.

“This visit will only end up in a small number of contracts, and most of the signatures will be non-binding, which is much less than we were hoping and not on a par with what was achieved in the UK and in the US,” stated a diplomatic memorandum leaked to Le Figaro.

Strong contrast with US visit

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (known as MBS) visit to France comes after a widely-publicized three-week coast-to-coast US tour, where the prince rubbed shoulders with US President Donald Trump and A-list celebrities of US politics, business and entertainment.

In the UK, he met with the prime minister and the queen, and signed contracts worth €70 billion.

But “there’s a strong contrast between the prince’s exuberant three-week tour of his US ally, where anyone who is anyone in politics was invited. France is the fourth country to be visited by MBS since he became prince,” wrote Le Figaro.

“This is despite a lot of effort being put into preparing the trip,” the newspaper concluded, explaining that a number of key government aides went to Riyadh to prepare the ground for the prince’s inaugural trip to France as heir.

'Saudi Arabia needs to diversify'

Both Paris and Riyadh hope this visit will help extend their soft power by collaborating in a wide range of areas, from culture, to tourism and innovation. A highlight of the visit will be the Franco-Saudi cooperation deal to develop Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archeological remnants. On Tuesday, around 18 non-binding agreements in agriculture, tourism, culture as well as energy, are set to be signed at an official Saudi-France CEO Forum, a source close to the crown prince's delegation told the AFP.

“The prince is looking at this trip as an opportunity,” Chatham House fellow Farea al-Muslimi told FRANCE 24.

“Saudi Arabia needs to diversify its economy and its allies. With Brexit, it also needs to build a long-term ally in the European Union.”

But the shadow of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, is likely to loom large over the next few days, as are a number of other challenges for President Macron as he tries to manage ties with other nations in the Middle East.

While trying to improve relations with Iran, Macron faces the challenge of convincing the Saudi prince that some agreement to curb Tehran's atomic ambitions is better than no deal at all. And this as the crown prince is seeking to build closer ties with the US and President Trump, who has threatened to tear up the 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran.

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. The French leader invited Hariri to Paris for talks and Hariri has since rescinded his resignation, a development that, analysts say, exposed the limits of the Saudi prince's authority.

Yemen, human rights

Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen is also a sticking point. Last week, 10 international rights groups implored Macron to pressure the crown prince over the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, claiming it is worsening a humanitarian crisis that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

On Monday, the human rights group Amnesty international published an advertisement in French newspaper Liberation, urging Macron to talk about human rights with the prince.

The French daily also pointed out that Saudi Arabia executes the third greatest number of prisoners in the world.

Macron further faces seething criticism over French weapon exports to Saudi Arabia: three out of four French people believe it is "unacceptable" to sell arms to the kingdom, according to a poll last month by independent research group YouGov.

MBS is aware of his country’s image in the West as an opaque petrostate which harbours jihadists, and the prince has made strong signals that he wants change that since he came to power nearly a year ago. He began by sacking a number of senior figures in a move to curb corruption. A ban on women driving has also been lifted, and mixed-gender concerts and cinemas have been allowed for the first time in 30 years.

All these changes are part of the prince’s wider plans for his kingdom’s transformation agenda, dubbed 'Vision 2030'. The stated long term plan, beyond social change, is to wean Saudi Arabia off its reliance on oil with greater investment in infrastructure, the entertainment industry and tourism.

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