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Saudi crown prince to visit France in whirlwind global tour
The Saudi Arabia’s crown prince travels on Sunday to France on the next leg of his global tour, extending his diplomatic charm offensive as he is seeking to project a new liberal image of his conservative kingdom.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day official visit, which is starting on Monday, comes after a week-long tour in the United States, Britain and Egypt, where the self-styled moderniser courted business leaders and signed a host of the multimillion-dollar deals.
The French President Emmanuel Macron treads a delicate line as he hosts the king-in-waiting in a visit expecting to focus on the cultural ties and investments, a long-running war in Yemen, dubbing world’s severe humanitarian defect
“It is not a traditional state visit,” a source close to crown prince’s delegation tells.
“It is about to forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals.”
More than a dozen memoranda of understanding in the tourism, energy and transportation to signed between French and Saudi organisations, another source close to the delegation tells AFP.
Franco-Saudi cooperation dealing in developing Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archaeological remnants, is also expecting to a central highlight of the visit, he is adding.
Prince Mohammed’s first visit to France as the heir to the Saudi throne comes after a tumultuous period at home. That saw a significant military shaking up and a royal purge as he consolidates power to a level unseen through the previous rulers.
His global tour is meant to “garner recognition and acceptance as the de facto leader and next king of Saudi Arabia,” Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University, tells AFP.
“This is a signal both to the domestic, international observing that he in charge and leave the country for several weeks without challenge to his authority,” he is adding.
The 32-year-old prince is a well-known MBS, has used his global tour to the project his dazzling reforms including the historic lifting of a ban on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to returning the kingdom to moderate Islam.
“There is little genuine affection for the Saudi Arabia across the West,” Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, tells AFP.
“MBS’s clear break with the Saudi taboos on women and religious tolerance have welcomed, but with a fair amount of the enduring scepticism.”
The Saudi officials project strong ties between Prince Mohammed and Mr Macron, both the young leaders are undertaking the difficult task of reforming their countries, but the trip follows a period of underlying tension.
Mr Macron is wading into a regional crisis last November when Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri is tendering his resignation on live television from Riyadh, apparently under pressure from the crown prince.
Mr Macron is inviting Mr 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 has to back down,” says Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi scholar at the Yale Law School.
“It is never easy for authoritarian like him to accept.”
In another embarrassment, a French arrest warrant was the issue in the month December against the crown prince’s sister for allegedly ordering her bodyguard to beat up a worker at her Paris apartment in the year 2016.
Mr Macron is also facing the challenge of bolstering ties with the world’s top crude exporter while managing the other regional relationships in the Middle East.
The crown prince has emphasising closer ties with a US President Donald Trump just as Mr Macron has sought to improve the relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis.
Mr Trump has threatening to abandon the year 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran unless improvements are proposing by May 12.
The challenge for Mr Macron is to convince the crown prince that “it is better to have the year 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran than no deal at all”, Denis Bouchard, of the French Institute of International Relations, tells AFP.
Mr 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 the four French people believing it is “unacceptable” to sell the weapons to Saudi Arabia, according to the election last month by the independent research group.
And this week, ten international rights groups imploring Mr Macron to pressure Prince Mohammed over the Saudi-let bomb campaigning 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 Tribes in the last month where a 25-year-old Islamist killed the four people.
The incident is triggering a new debate in France over a radical Salafist interpretation of the Islam which is originating in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Macron’s office says the trip will also focus on investment in the digital economy as well as renewable energy, as the oil-rich kingdom invests billions of dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify.