PARIS: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince wraps up his official visit to France Tuesday with a gala dinner hosted by President Emmanuel Macron, as the young leaders seek to shore up cooperation despite lurking differences.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, previously dined with Macron at Paris’s Louvre museum on Sunday night after flying in on his first trip to France as heir to the Saudi throne.
Macron, 40, treads 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. Macron tweeted a picture of the pair at the Louvre looking at the 19th-century masterpiece Liberty Leading The People by revolutionary painter Eugene Delacroix, which shows Liberty as a bare-breasted woman.
“The discussions were friendly, which allowed the two men to establish a personal relationship,” Macron’s office said.
The two leaders will now 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.
In a trip that appears focused on tourism, culture and the arts, 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. 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 Pay.
Prince Mohammed’s 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. Saudi and French aides stressed before the trip that cultural ties, as well as new business opportunities, would be at the heart of two days of talks between government and private-sector figures from both countries.
The announcement that Saudi Arabia will make its first official appearance at France’s Cannes film festival came after Prince Mohammed dined last week in Hollywood with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, along with film studio bosses and famed American actors including Morgan Freeman.
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 it to be dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN.
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. Ahead of the trip to France, Saudi officials suggested relations were strong between Macron and the crown prince, both young leaders with reformist agendas.
But the visit follows a period of underlying tensions.
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 Prince Mohammed.
Macron invited Hariri to Paris for talks and he later rescinded his resignation, a development that analysts say exposed the limits of the prince’s authority.
Macron has also 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.