Saudi crown prince begins official visit to Paris
PARIS - Saudi Arabia's crown prince kicks off his official visit to France Monday, part of an image-building global tour as he seeks to revitalise cultural and investment ties with Paris despite lurking tensions.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, dined with President Emmanuel Macron at Paris's historic Louvre museum after flying in Sunday on his first trip to France as the heir to the Saudi throne.
Macron faces a diplomatic tightrope in talks with the reformist prince as he seeks to bolster ties with the world's top crude exporter, while also managing relations with the kingdom's arch-rival Iran.
A scheduled visit to the Paris-based start-up campus Station F along with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was abruptly cancelled, but the two leaders are set to meet for lunch on Monday.
The 32-year-old prince, who spearheads the kingdom's armed forces, is also set to meet French Defence Minister Florence Parly.
Campaigners are expected to mobilise to denounce French weapon exports to Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom's role in the long-running war in Yemen, dubbed the world's worst humanitarian 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.
The visit comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as the crown prince consolidates power to a degree well beyond that wielded by previous rulers.
- Underlying tensions -
The prince's trip to France following a weeks-long tour of the United States, Britain and Egypt where he courted a host of business titans and several multimillion dollar deals.
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 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.
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.
Backed by high-power lobbying and public relations firms, the prince is seeking to rebrand Saudi Arabia as a modernist oasis instead of an austere kingdom known for exporting jihadist ideology and subjugating women.
Saudi officials project strong relations between Prince Mohammed and Macron, both young leaders undertaking challenging reforms to transform their countries.
But the trip 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 the crown prince.
Macron invited Hariri to Paris for talks and he has since rescinded his resignation, a development that analysts say exposed the limits of the prince's authority.
As US President Donald Trump threatens to tear up the 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran, Macron also faces the challenge of convincing the prince that some agreement to curb Tehran's atomic ambitions is better than no deal at all, experts say.
The crown prince, however, has emphasised closer ties with Washington just as Macron has sought to improve relations with Iran.