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AFP
April 9, 2018
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France hosts prince Salman on global tour

World

AFP
April 9, 2018

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Saudi Arabia’s crown prince arrived in France on Sunday for the next leg of a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image as he pursues his drive to reform the conservative petrostate.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman will hold meetings with President Emmanuel Macron during his two-day official visit starting on Monday -- his first trip to France as the heir to the Saudi throne.

Macron will walk a diplomatic tightrope with the young prince in talks set to focus on cultural ties and investments but also the war in Yemen, dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the kingdom’s arch-nemesis Iran.

The 32-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, was received at the Bourget airport near Paris on Sunday morning by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The trip follows a coast-to-coast tour of the United States as well as visits to Britain and Egypt, where the prince courted a host of business tycoons and struck multimillion-dollar deals from defence to entertainment.

Around 18 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed at an official Saudi-France CEO Forum on Tuesday, a source close to the crown prince’s delegation told AFP.

A Franco-Saudi cooperation deal to develop Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archaeological remnants, is also expected to be a central highlight of the visit, the source added. Aside from meetings with the French president, prime minister and trade officials, the prince is also considering a visit to the Paris-based tech start-up campus Station F, the Arab World Institute and a concert in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, the source said.

"This is not a traditional state visit," another source close to the Saudi delegation told AFP, without revealing the time of his arrival on Sunday. "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 world’s top crude exporter pumps billions of dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify its economy.

Prince Mohammed’s tour is meant to project "Saudi Arabia is open for business", Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University, told AFP. "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 destabilising force," he said.

The tour comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as the prince consolidates power to a degree well beyond that wielded by previous rulers.

The 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 -- as part of his pledge to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.

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