The Saudi crown prince arrives in France to discuss a range of challenges facing the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal, the Qatar crisis, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and business are at the top of the agenda.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives in France on Sunday as part of a whirlwind world tour to burnish an image of himself as a modernizer in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The two-day visit to France, which officially begins on Monday, comes after a weekslong tour in the United States and Britain that saw the 32-year-old heir to the throne meet with high-profile business and political leaders and cut business deals.
"Mohammed bin Salman's tour is designed to introduce him to key constituencies in the international community as the King-in-waiting of Saudi Arabia," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
In France, talks between the crown prince, known as MBS, and President Emmanuel Macron are expected to focus on the ongoing Qatar crisis, the war in Yemen, Syria, the Iran nuclear deal and Lebanon, where France has historical links. Business and cultural ties are also on the agenda.
MBS' first visit to France as crown prince comes after recent developments back home: He has shaken up the military and purged the royal family, cementing his control over the kingdom he may rule for decades.
Macron leaves mark on Lebanon crisis
Macron first met Prince Mohammed in November, when he hastily flew to Riyadh to defuse a crisis after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suddenly resigned from the Saudi capital.
Many in Lebanon believed the resignation had been forced upon Hariri by his chief patron, Saudi Arabia, as part of a bid to undermine the influence of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its backer Iran, the Sunni kingdom's regional rival. Hariri ultimately left Saudi Arabia for France, before returning to Lebanon and rescinding his resignation.
"It was Macron who was able to get everyone out of the crisis over Hariri's resignation, and he could do it because of his deep and good contacts with Saudi Arabia," said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Paris office.
Like Macron, Prince Mohammed is a reform-driven leader. He is focused on implementing his Vision 2030, a series of economic reforms to wean the economy off oil dependence and diversify by developing non-oil sectors.
The reforms also extend into the social realm, including lifting a ban on women driving, opening cinemas and introducing mixed-gendered entertainment as part of the crown prince's efforts to create an image of Saudi Arabia as promoting "moderate Islam." Critics say the social reforms are merely window dressing over the kingdom's abysmal human rights record and treatment of women.
Ulrichsen said that he expects "Macron will try to ensure that French companies are not cut out of Vision 2030 after the apparent success of the US visit in drumming up investor interest in the Saudi reforms."
Differences over Iran
There are underlying differences between France and Saudi Arabia over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, although there are shared concerns over Tehran's ballistic missile program and its role in regional conflicts.
As a permanent UN Security Council member and signatory to the international nuclear accord, France and other international powers have sought to preserve the pact ahead of a possible US withdrawal on May 12.
Macron is also keen to kick-start business relations with Iran after Tehran was isolated for years under crippling international sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear accord. Prince Mohammed's approach to Iran is closer to that of US President Donald Trump.
"It is clear that the Saudis went from displeased and even annoyed with US President Barack Obama to much more comfortable with Trump," said Rapnouil. "In this context, Riyadh feels emboldened, not just against Iran, but more generally, as shown on Qatar or in Yemen."
"MBS' assertive agenda can contradict Macron's vision of stability in the Middle East, be it on Iran, on Lebanon, or on Yemen," he added.
Yemen and arms sales
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was launched by MBS, who doubles as defense minister, has been a sore spot in relations with Europe.
Ahead of Prince Mohammed's visit, a lawmaker from Macron's party and 15 other co-signatories called for a parliamentary investigation into the legality of French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The conflict has killed 10,000 people and created a humanitarian catastrophe.
"This visit is going to be a test of Macron's core principles. If he rolls out the red carpet treatment and glosses over MBS's atrocious record in Yemen and at home in the hope of signing lucrative contracts, he will betray the victims of Saudi Arabia's abusive policies and the values that France is claiming to stand for," said Philippe Bolopion, the deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch.
According to a YouGov poll, 75 percent of French people want Macron to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Germany has already moved to halt arms exports to parties in the Yemen conflict, causing relations between Berlin and Riyadh to sour.
"With Saudi ties with Germany strained at the moment … meeting Macron also gives MBS a chance to engage with a leading figure in the EU as well, which is important given that the EU has been rather more critical of the war in Yemen than the US or the UK, and several EU states have opted to end or scale back weapons sales as a result," said Ulrichsen.
A counterterrorism partner
Saudi Arabia is also an important counterterrorism partner for France, which is a major player in the Middle East as a military power and member of the US-led coalition against the "Islamic State." The terror group has claimed multiple attacks in France over the past couple years.
Saudi Arabia has also pledged to support the EU-backed G5 force of Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania in the Sahel region, where French forces are fighting against Islamist militants.
Critics accuse Saudi Arabia of promoting a radical Wahhabi ideology, or even terrorist groups, that make it an incompatible counterextremism partner.