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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Saudi crown prince arrives in France on next stop of global tour

Mohammed bin Salman's visit will focus on cultural ties, investments and Yemen

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman is welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia   Francois Gouyette, left, at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, on April 8, 2018. Ahmed Nureldine / AFP
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman is welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia Francois Gouyette, left, at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, on April 8, 2018. Ahmed Nureldine / AFP

Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in France on Sunday on the next leg of his global tour following a coast-to-coast visit of the US.

The extended trip has seen the young crown prince visit Egypt and the UK in a bid to reshape his kingdom's conservative image.

His two-day official visit starts on Monday and will focus on cultural ties and investments as well as the war in Yemen.

About 14 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed between French and Saudi organisations, a source close to the crown prince's delegation told Agence France-Presse.

According to the source, a Franco-Saudi co-operation deal is also on the cards to develop Al Ula, a city in the west of the kingdom rich in archaeological artefacts.

Aside from meetings with President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and trade officials, the heir to the Saudi throne is also considering a visit to the Paris-based tech start-up campus Station F and a concert in southern Aix-en-Provence.

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

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

Mr Macron's office said the trip would also focus on investment in the digital economy as well as renewable energy, as the oil-rich kingdom invests billions of dollars in the sector in a bid to diversify.

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Professor Bernard Haykel, at Princeton University, said that Prince Mohammed is seeking to market the kingdom as a business partner to the West as well as a force of stability as opposed to "rival Iran", which he presents as a destabilising force".

Prince Mohammed's first visit to France as the heir to the Saudi throne comes after a tumultuous period at home including a major military shake-up and a royal purge.

The 32-year-old prince has used his global tour to project his reforms, including the historic lifting of bans on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.

Saudi officials project strong ties between Prince Mohammed and Mr Macron, both young leaders undertaking challenging reforms to transform their countries.

But the trip follows a period of underlying tensions, including Mr Macron's challenge of bolstering ties with the world's top crude exporter while managing other regional relationships in the Middle East.

The crown prince has emphasised closer ties with US President Donald Trump just as Mr Macron has sought to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's arch enemy.

Mr Trump has threatened to abandon the 2015 nuclear co-operation deal with Iran unless changes to it are proposed by May 12.

The challenge for Mr Macron is to convince the crown prince that "it is better to have the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran than no deal at all", said Denis Bauchard, of the French Institute of International Relations.