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Saudi crown prince MBS in France on global tour

France and Saudi Arabia have agreed on new intergovernmental accord to conclude weapons deals
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Paris - Le Bourget airport on Sunday (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's crown prince arrived in France on Sunday on the next leg of a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom's austere image as he presses ahead with plans to reform the conservative nation.

The 32-year-old prince was received at the Bourget airport near Paris on Sunday morning by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Crown 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 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.

About 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.

France and Saudi Arabia have also agreed on a new intergovernmental accord to conclude weapons deals, a French defence ministry official said on Sunday. 

The agreement replaces a process that had been criticised by the crown prince, who is also the country’s defence minister.

“In conjunction with the Saudi authorities, France has initiated a new arms export strategy with Saudi Arabia, which until now has been managed by ODAS,” the official said, referring to the organisation that currently handles French defence interests in Saudi Arabia.

“It will now be covered by an intergovernmental agreement between the two countries. The ODAS company will only provide for the termination of existing contracts.

The official did not elaborate. 

France, the world’s third-biggest arms exporter, counts Saudi Arabia among its biggest purchasers, and defence firms including Dassault and Thales have major contracts there.

Weapons deals

In recent years, Riyadh has bought French tanks, armoured vehicles, munitions and artillery and navy ships.

In 2016, licences potentially worth about $22bn to Saudi were approved, with deliveries worth about $2.5bn.

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 expected to visit the Paris-based tech start-up campus Station F and the Arab World Institute on Monday, the source said.

"This is not a traditional state visit," another source close to the Saudi delegation told AFP.

"It is about forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals."

Dozens of people staged a protest Sunday in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, where the prince had previously been expected to attend a concert.

One picket sign read "Don't sell arms to Saudi Arabia," according to an AFP reporter.

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.

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 militant ideology and subjugating women.

Saudi officials project strong relations 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 told AFP.

"The leadership of both countries share much in common. They are both young, visionary and ambitious."

But the trip follows a period of underlying tensions, with Macron seeking to bolster ties with the Arab world's biggest economy while also managing other relationships with Middle Eastern nations.

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.

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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.

Macron faces seething criticism over French weapon exports to Saudi Arabia, including Caesar artillery guns, sniper rifles and armoured vehicles, in spite of 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.

Last week, 10 international rights groups implored Macron to pressure Prince Mohammed over the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, claiming it is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis for thousands of civilians.

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