Saudi crown prince visits France, seeks strategic partner
PARIS (AP) — The crown prince of Saudi Arabia arrived in Paris on Sunday, a day ahead of his first official visit to France, which is hoping to profit from his shake-up of the conservative kingdom to forge a new kind of commercial relationship.
No big weapons contracts are expected to be signed during the short visit of Mohammed bin Salman, but a “strategic partnership” is to be announced Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, now at the center of the kingdom’s power structure, has instigated major reforms to shed the kingdom’s austere image. Changes include giving women the right to drive, introducing concerts and promising movie theaters.
France hopes to join sectors like technology, renewable energy, health and tourism that Saudi Arabia wants to develop, an official with Macron’s office said. That includes developing a UNESCO heritage desert site.
A visit to “Station F,” a huge Left Bank incubator for startups, is on the crown prince’s agenda.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian greeted the crown prince and his royal entourage and bevy of Cabinet ministers in a low-key arrival. The crown prince was devoting Sunday to private time ahead of the two-day official visit. The royal family owns luxurious property in France, including a mansion on the Riviera.
For human rights organizations, changes being wrought by the crown prince, often referred to as MBS, are cosmetic.
Demonstrators planned protests over the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Ten human rights organizations have asked Macron to demand that Saudi Arabia end the airstrikes and lift a blockade aggravating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth advised the French president in a tweet Sunday to “keep his distance -- from MBS’s war crimes in Yemen and his ongoing repression of women and dissidents at home.”
The two leaders will discuss the wars in Yemen and Syria, Iran — Saudi Arabia’s regional rival — and the fight against terrorism and terrorist financing, the French official said.
Prince Mohammed comes to France after a nearly three-week-long trip to the United States, preceded by a three-day visit to Britain. The prince ended his U.S. travels with more than $2.3 billion in promised arms sales and $1.3 billion in artillery.
France, traditionally a major arms supplier of the Saudis, dismissed questions about big arms contracts during this trip.
“We are absolutely not disappointed” in the absence of weapons deals, the official from Macron’s office insisted. “We want to be part of this new dimension” being developed by the crown prince, which gives way to “new cooperation, less directed toward isolated contracts and more to investments in the future.”
The official was not authorized to speak publicly ahead of the visit.
The Gulf dispute with Qatar — isolated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — is not likely to be high among topics covered, if at all, the official suggested. The four countries cut off Qatar’s land, sea and air routes in June over its alleged support of extremists and close ties with Iran, which Qatar adamantly denies.
A ranking Qatari official said during a recent visit to Paris that his country would welcome French mediation. He spoke about the sensitive topic on condition of anonymity.
Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.