Saudi prince meets with Lebanese leader as Paris trip winds up

Paris (AFP) –


Saudi Arabia's crown prince wraps up his visit to France Tuesday, geared toward shoring up cooperation while addressing the lurking strategic differences between the two countries on a series of crises across the Middle East.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, will conclude his visit with further discussions with President Emmanuel Macron ahead of a gala dinner at the Elysee Palace.

On Monday, the prince held a surprise meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as talks with France's foreign and defence ministers.

Macron and the Saudi heir had already dined for nearly three hours Sunday at the Louvre museum, with the young French leader later tweeting photos of them in front of Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading The People".

The choice of the famous painting of a bare-breasted woman holding the French tricolore was seen as underscoring the crown prince's efforts to introduce greater personal freedoms in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Much of the prince's visit has also focused on deepening cultural ties with France, with Saudi officials drawing on the country's expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra.

The kingdom also revealed that it would enter short films at the Cannes film festival next month for the first time.

But diplomacy on several fronts has also been high on the agenda, with Hariri flying in for a meeting with Prince Mohammed on Monday just days after the Lebanese premier attended a donors' conference in Paris aimed at bolstering his country's crisis-hit economy.

Hariri later posted on Twitter a picture of the two men along with Morocco's King Mohammed VI, but without any comment, and it was unclear what the three leaders discussed.

Just last November, Hariri surprised the world by tendering his resignation on live television from Riyadh, apparently under pressure from Prince Mohammed.

Macron later intervened by inviting Hariri to Paris, and he later rescinded his resignation, a development that analysts say exposed the limits of the young Saudi prince's authority.

- Culture and contracts -

Macron, 40, is treading a diplomatic tightrope with the prince as he seeks to bolster his ties with the world's top oil exporter while also managing relations with Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran.

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.

The prince's delegation is set to host a forum Tuesday morning with multiple French business titans, which could trigger a host of memorandums of understanding, though it was unclear if the prince would attend.

The prince, widely known as MBS, is also expected to meet some French ministers, a source close to his delegation told AFP. He has so far met Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly.

His 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 his country, typically associated in the West with exporting jihadist ideology.

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

- Hollywood and Cannes -

Amid the flurry of announcements in France, campaigners 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.

The prince's visit follows a period of underlying tensions with France, not least with regards to Iran.

Saudi Arabia has lined up behind US President Donald Trump and his threat to walk away from the landmark 2015 accord which halted Tehran's nuclear programme.

Macron has been working to save the agreement, and has already announced plans to be the first French president to visit Iran since 1976, as he seeks to build relations with the two competing regional powers in the Middle East.