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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Saudi prince due to sign $1.8bn defence deal with Spain

Heir to the throne to preside over signing of bilateral agreements with Spanish prime minister

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laughs with Spain's King Felipe at the Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman laughs with Spain's King Felipe at the Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid. Sergio Perez / Reuters

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was expected to sign a 1.8 billion euros (Dh$8.1bn) military deal during Thursday's state visit to Madrid, the last stop on a global tour that included talks with the main exporters of military equipment and weapons to the kingdom.

State-owned Navantia was to reportedly sell Saudi Arabia five small warships, a Spanish Defence Ministry source told Reuters. Spain's army will also train Saudi military personnel and contractors will build a naval construction centre in the kingdom, the news agency said.

Navantia declined to comment.

The crown prince met King Felipe and Queen Letizia at the Zarzuela Palace near Madrid on Thursday, the second day of his state visit. He also spent time with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal.

The Saudi Arabian and Spanish royal families have close ties. King Felipe's father Juan Carlos was a friend of the King Fahd, who reigned from 1982 to 2005. He is also close to his brother King Salman.

Spain is also a long-term commercial ally of the kingdom. A consortium of Spanish companies built a high-speed railway between Medina and Mecca.

Activists have criticised past and potentially future sales of military equipment to the kingdom, however.

Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam and Spain's FundiPau have been disparaging about a possible contract to build and sell five Navy corvettes. The NGOs urged Spain to stop exporting weapons that could be used by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the UN says thousands of civilians have died.

The independent global security database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that the US, Britain, and France are the three main exporters of military equipment and weapons to Saudi Arabia. Spain is the fourth.

Madrid exported 728 million euros' (Dh3.3bn) worth of defence-related equipment to Saudi Arabia between 2015, when airstrikes in Yemen began, and mid-2017, the most recent date for which was available, data gathered by the four NGOs from official sources showed.

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Now at the centre of the Saudi kingdom's power structure, the crown prince has instigated reforms to shed its austere image, and his world tour has widely been viewed as a charm offensive to promote his modernising views.

Saudi Arabia's crown prince on Tuesday night attended a gala dinner hosted by President Emmanuel Macron in Paris as the young leaders sought to improve co-operation. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it wants international input into its Vision 2030 programme in order to make it a success.

The crown prince, 32, also dined with Mr Macron, 40, at Paris's Louvre museum on Sunday after flying in on his first trip to France as heir to the Saudi throne.

Mr Macron sought to bolster ties with the world's top oil exporter while also managing relations with Iran. He tweeted a picture of the pair at the Louvre looking at the 19th-century masterpiece Liberty Leading The People by revolutionary painter Eugene Delacroix.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wrapped up his whirlwind tour of the US by meeting technology titans, part of a three-week US visit focused on economic opportunities to diversify the oil-rich nation.

The Saudi delegation visited several Silicon Valley corporate campuses, including Apple and Facebook, and data-analysis startup Palantir Technologies.

"Discussions concentrated on creating an attractive environment for emerging companies with innovative products," Saudi Arabia’s embassy said in a statement.

Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, also visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, where he met founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as well as Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai, according to the Saudi embassy.

During the trip, the Saudis signed a cloud-computing contract with Google, but financial terms were not disclosed.

On his last day in Britain, the crown prince met British defence secretary Gavin Williamson. His three-day trip saw the UK government defend its military ties with Saudi Arabia.

The two countries set a £65 billion trade and investment target for the coming years, broadening a trading relationship built on defence and security.

Prime Minister Theresa May said that anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries have saved lives, but the visit attracted protests from the political opposition and campaigners because of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Before the visit, the crown prince said people from both countries would be “much safer if you have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia”.

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