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Saudi crown prince begins official Paris visit

Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed ben Salman
Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed ben Salman Bryan R. Smith/AFP

Saudi Arabia's crown prince kicks off his official visit to France on Monday as he seeks to revitalise cultural and investment ties with Paris despite lurking tensions.

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Prince Mohammed bin Salman dined with President Emmanuel Macron at Paris's Louvre museum after flying in Sunday on his first trip to France as the heir to the Saudi throne.

Macron faces a diplomatic tightrope in talks with the reformist prince as he seeks to bolster ties with the world's top crude exporter, while also managing relations with the kingdom's arch-rival Iran.

A scheduled visit to the Paris-based start-up campus Station F along with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was abruptly cancelled, but the two leaders are set to meet for lunch on Monday.

The 32-year-old prince, who spearheads the kingdom's armed forces, is also set to meet French Defence Minister Florence Parly.

The visit comes after a tumultuous period at home that saw a major military shake-up and a royal purge as the crown prince consolidates power to a degree well beyond that wielded by previous rulers.

Underlying tensions

The prince's trip to France following a weeks-long tour of the United States, Britain and Egypt where he courted a host of business titans and several multimillion dollar deals.

Around 18 memorandums of understanding in energy, agriculture, tourism and culture are set to be signed at an official Saudi-France CEO Forum on Tuesday, a source close to the crown prince's delegation told the AFP news agency.

A Franco-Saudi cooperation deal to develop Al Ula, a Saudi city richly endowed with archeological remnants, is also expected to be a central highlight of the visit.

The prince has used his global tour to project his reforms -- including the historic 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 oasis instead of an austere kingdom known for exporting jihadist ideology and subjugating women.

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

But the trip follows a period of underlying tensions.

Macron waded into a regional crisis last November when Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation on live television from Riyadh, apparently under pressure from the crown prince.

Macron invited Hariri to Paris for talks and he has since rescinded his resignation, a development that analysts say exposed the limits of the prince's authority.

As US President Donald Trump threatens to tear up the 2015 nuclear cooperation deal with Iran, Macron also faces the challenge of convincing the prince that some agreement to curb Tehran's atomic ambitions is better than no deal at all, experts say.

The crown prince, however, has emphasised closer ties with Washington just as Macron has sought to improve relations with Iran.

(with AFP)

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