Prince MBS in Paris — what to expect?

April 10, 2018
Prince MBS in Paris — what to expect?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

THREE weeks in the United States, after many days in Egypt and the United Kingdom, and the energetic Crown Prince is still on the go. His “Charm Offensive” tour, as TIME magazine described it, is continuing in France and probably Spain. During his world tour, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman met with all relevant figures for his Vision 2030. They included royals, presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and a long list of religious, political, military and academic leaders. His meetings with bankers, CEOs of energy, space and entertainment firms are quite important for the Vision 2030.

In Paris, MBS will attend cultural events, political meetings and an economic forum. A mega tourism project between the two countries is to be announced. No other mega deals are expected, however. A senior French diplomat explains: “Competition is fierce so we had to rethink the models of relationships. Less talk about major contracts and more focus on sectors that are less spectacular such as health, education and tourism.” The diplomat should have also mentioned military cooperation. France is a primary seller of arms to Saudi Arabia (after the US and UK). For decades, it provided us with tanks, armored vehicles, munitions and artillery and navy ships. Defense firms, including Dassault and Thales, have major contracts here.

In June 2015 Saudi Arabia and France agreed to sign $12 billion of deals. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said then that the ten contracts included 23 Airbus H145 helicopters worth $500 million. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the Saudi defense ministry was also discussing the price for a contract for French naval patrol boats, built by DCNS.

In 2016, licenses potentially worth 18 billion euros ($22.11 billion) to Saudi Arabia were approved, with deliveries worth about 2 billion euros.

A new way of doing business is being discussed though. “In conjunction with the Saudi authorities, France has initiated a new arms export strategy with the Kingdom, which until now has been managed by ODAS,” a French official was quoted, referring to the organization that currently handles French defense interests in Saudi Arabia. “It will now be covered by an intergovernmental agreement between the two countries. The ODAS company will only provide for the termination of existing contracts,” he explained.

Saudi relations with the French Republic go way back. It was one of the first countries to recognize the government of King Abdulaziz in 1926. France established a consulate in 1929 and concluded a treaty between the Kingdom of Hejaz and France in 1931. Following the declaration of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the French government established a full diplomatic relationship and opened the first embassy in Jeddah in 1936.

Saudi and France throughout WWII declared war on the Axis, in which the Kingdom supplied oil to the allies. After WWII Saudi was aligned with the NATO countries against communism. Ever since King Faisal and General de Gaulle met in 1967, bilateral relations have evolved through personal contacts at the highest levels. France joined the United States and other coalition forces in Desert Shield, an operation launched by former US President George H.W. Bush to defend the Kingdom from Iraqi aggression after the invasion of Kuwait.

In 2015, French President Francois Hollande was invited to address a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, a role not often given to a foreign head of state.

On May 2016, a delegation of the Saudi French Parliamentary Friendship Committee of the Shoura Council had a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris

A forum was established for expanding Saudi-French trade known as the Saudi French Business Opportunities Forum. The first forum was successfully held in Paris in April 2013 under the auspices of BSF, and was organized by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy and Industry, the Council of Saudi Chambers, and the Saudi-French Business Council. A second meeting was held in October 2015 in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, featuring France’s largest corporations such as Airbus and Legrand.

Similar business forums and events will take place during the Crown Prince’s visit to Paris. His meetings with President Emmanuel Macron and other political leaders should cover a wide-range of issues, including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the war on terrorism. Iran’s destructive activities and threats to regional security and stability are expected to top the agenda. In addition, French participation in Vision 2030 would be a major topic in meetings with state and business leaders.

We expect more good news from this visit to the City of Light, as we had from the previous ones to Cairo and London, and as we expect from the last visit to Andalusia. The future is full of good surprises if you plan your voyage-— with the right company — well enough, as we do!

— Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi

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