Mon, Apr 09, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Macron hosts reformist Saudi prince

AFP, PARIS

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince yesterday arrived in France on the next leg of his global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image overseas as he seeks to reform the conservative petro-state.

French President Emmanuel Macron would walk a diplomatic tightrope during Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day official visit starting today. The trip is set to focus on cultural ties and investments as well as the war in Yemen, dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

It follows a coast-to-coast tour of the US as well as Britain and Egypt, where Prince Mohammed courted multimillion-dollar deals, from defense to entertainment.

About 14 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed between French and Saudi organizations, a source close to the crown prince’s delegation said.

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, he added.

Aside from meetings with the French president, prime minister and trade officials, the heir to the Saudi throne is also considering a visit to the Paris-based tech start-up campus Station F and a concert in southern Aix-en-Provence, the source said.

“This is not a traditional state visit,” another source close to the delegation said. “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 oil-rich kingdom invests billions of US dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify.

Prince Mohammed seeks to show “Saudi Arabia is open for business,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University.

“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 destabilizing force,” he added.

Prince Mohammed’s first visit to France as the heir to the Saudi throne comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as he consolidates power to a level unseen by previous rulers.

The 32-year-old 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, following his public vow to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.

Backed by global lobbying and public relations companies, the prince is seeking to rebrand Saudi Arabia from an austere kingdom known for exporting extremist ideology and subjugating women to a modernist oasis.

Saudi officials project strong ties 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 said. “The leadership of both countries share much in common. They are both young, visionary and ambitious.”

However, Macron also faces seething criticism over the export of arms to Saudi Arabia, including Caesar artillery guns, sniper rifles and armored 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.

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