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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Saudi-French cultural tie-ups announced as Prince Mohammed begins France visit

Saudi crown prince dined at the Louvre with French President Emmanuel Macron after arriving on Sunday

France said on Monday it would help Saudi Arabia set up a national orchestra and opera, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman officially began a two-day visit to the country.

"Today an agreement was signed with the Paris Opera to help Saudi Arabia set up a national orchestra and an opera," French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen said after talks with her Saudi counterpart, Awwad Alawwad.

The Saudi culture minister said the kingdom would take part in the Cannes film festival for the first time next month, submitting a selection of short films.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to shed its austere image as part of reforms initiated by Prince Mohammed to end the kingdom's reliance on oil revenue and attract foreign investment.

The crown prince arrived in France on Sunday and dined with French President Emmanuel Macron at Paris's Louvre museum.

The dinner set the tone for the official part of the visit starting on Monday, which follows a weeks-long tour of the United States, Britain and Egypt where he courted a host of multimillion dollar deals.

Prince Mohammed's scheduled visit to the Paris-based start-up campus Station F on Monday with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was abruptly cancelled, but the two leaders were scheduled to meet for lunch.

The 32-year-old crown prince, who also holds the defence portfolio, was also set to meet French Defence Minister Florence Parly.

On Tuesday, around 18 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed at an official Saudi-France CEO Forum, a source close to the crown prince's delegation said.

A Franco-Saudi deal to develop Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archaeological remnants, is also set to be a central highlight of the visit, the source said.

The agreement calls for the creation of a dedicated agency modelled on the lines of the French museums agency, which spearheaded the setting up of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.

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The prince has used his global tour to project his reforms – including the 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 state.

Saudi officials project strong relations between Prince Mohammed and Mr Macron, both of whom are undertaking reforms to transform their countries.

"Saudi Arabia is not resetting diplomatic ties with France," a source close to the Saudi government said.

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

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