The visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Paris will include meetings with French business leaders and plans to build trade ties focused on “investments in the future.”
The two countries have a strong history of bilateral trade relations within the defense, infrastructure and aerospace sectors. Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls signed €10 billion worth of contracts in October 2015 in the fields of aerospace and military contracts on behalf of Airbus, transport, energy, health and food markets with French companies. France is also a major arms supplier to the Kingdom. “We want a new cooperation, concentrating less on contracts and more in investing in the future, especially in digital and renewable energy, with a common vision,” said the French presidency.
This statement suggests that the royal visit is about more than economics and looks to a deepening of cultural and political ties. “Part of his visit will be economic, to say the least, but Saudi Arabia will also want to promote its Vision 2030 approach,” Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham.
The professor said he expects to see more alliances and deals forged with the French technology sector as Saudi Arabia continues the high-tech momentum from the crown prince’s recent visit to Silicon Valley. Lucas added that there could also be more deals for weaponry, infrastructure and clean energy. “There is a wide range of areas for possible cooperation,” he said.
Dr. Khalid Bin Mohammad Al-Ankary, Saudi ambassador to France, wrote on Thursday in the French publication L’Opinion that “the regularity of the bilateral visits testifies to the solid partnership between France and the Kingdom, which is based in particular on common strategic interests: The fight against terrorism and for international stability, the search for a convergence of views on regional crises in the Middle East and the Sahel.” Al-Ankary added: “This visit has particular importance and meaning. The transformation of the Saudi economy, society and political life is under way. A young and connected country. What modernity would be possible without openness to tourism and culture?”
Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the cultural “opening up” of Saudi Arabia with new licenses for concerts and museums “presents a wealth of opportunities for countries with cultural exports, such as France.
The crown prince’s visit will also be about building ties against terrorism and building educational and cultural ties beyond economic deals alone, Doyle said.
“Saudi Arabia hasn’t yet had many touristic visits from Europe, but as Saudi Arabia opens up there may be a possibility that this happens,” he added. Doyle highlighted renewable energy as another potential area for KSA-France collaboration. “Saudi Arabia has recently highlighted green energy as absolutely vital. Now green energy is experiencing such a rise, it’s only sensible that Saudi Arabia invests in it and that means partnering with the world’s renewable energy leaders.”
Doyle added that the crown prince has a major political agenda. “People aren’t sure where Saudi Arabia’s direction is going and he’s trying to explain his strategy to his three most important Western allies — the US, the UK and France.”
He said the true success of the crown prince’s trips to the West as regards how Saudi Arabia is perceived would be measured in the medium-to-long term. “The dividends of this trip may not be seen immediately, however, in the short term, there were no pitfalls or massive clash that undermined the visit — it went fairly smoothly,” he said.
“The tour of Crown Prince Mohammed is more focused on security, economy and business,” said Dr. Ibrahim Al-Qayid, a founding member of the Riyadh-based National Society for Human Rights. He said that the crown prince has lent all his support to “encourage entrepreneurship and foreign investment, and privatize state-owned industries... The crown prince’s support to women with an aim to integrate them into the workforce has started paying dividends.”