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Cover Story, Saudi Affairs

A New Era for Saudi-France Relations

The Crown Prince’s Official Visit to Paris 

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Elysee Presidential palace for a meeting on April 10, 2018 in Paris.(Getty Images)

by Ahmed Taher 

Times of change require new approaches to internal and external matters. They require new visions and constructive discussions and negotiations that take into account existing realities and aim to change them in response to new developments and transformations. This is true of the ambitious reforms the Saudi Crown Prince is pursuing within the framework of Vision 2030 which he launched not only to rebuild the Saudi economy on an unconventional basis by diversifying its production base and increasing its resources, but to re-position the Kingdom on the global stage. These reforms will reflect positively on the lives of Saudi citizens and secure the future of their children. This was expressed by the Crown Prince in his speech at the press conference held at the end of his visit to France: “The goal of Saudi Arabia is to be a focal point between Asia, Africa and Europe; in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”

Before we shed light on the fourth leg of the Crown Prince’s global tour which has taken him to Egypt, the United Kingdom and the United states, we should emphasize two important observations. First, the choice of these countries is not coincidental but come in light of a carefully planned and accurate reading of the changes taking place in the world order. Following a visit by the Crown Prince to Moscow during the middle of last year, his visit to the West is sending a message to the world that Saudi Arabia’s policies are not based on alliances, but on a keenness to open paths in its foreign relations away from the policies of alliances and polarization, and to strengthen its relations with various parties.

The timing of the visit comes ahead of the scheduled meetings between the parties concerned with the Iranian file, which includes the fate of the nuclear agreement, Tehran’s missile and ballistic programs, and its regional policy. Among the objectives of the tour is to clarify the risks posed by Iran’s policies that are threatening the security and stability of the region. The tour is also taking place ahead of the scheduled meeting between the US and French presidents in the United States on April 25-26, as well as Trump’s May 12 deadline by which he must decide if he will issue a waiver of relevant US sanctions on Iran to stay in compliance with the JCPO.

Typically, visits of this nature are focused on economic and military fields, but as was demonstrated by Mohammed bin Salman’s choice of stops on his ambitious journey through the US, the Crown Prince’s primary interests are in areas related to culture and new technology. He signed agreements with, Amazon, IMC Cinemas, Six Flags, in addition to agreements in the economic and military fields of course. His trip to France followed a similar course.

NEW PARTNERSHIPS

In a three-day visit at the official invitation of the French President, the Crown Prince met with Emmanuel Macaron and senior French officials, with the aim of building new partnerships between the two countries in various fields.

“This visit is of particular importance at a time when the Kingdom is witnessing a new phase of economic, social and political reforms… and the partnership between the Kingdom and France can inspire, meet and support these transformations, not only to deepen, but to re-establish the Franco-Saudi strategic partnership on joint ventures in various fields,” ​​said Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed al-Anqari, Saudi ambassador to France.

This was indeed the outcome of Saudi-French Strategic Partnership Council, which was chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Emmanuel Macron and attended by a number of ministers and senior officials of the two governments. The outcomes of the visit as a whole and the results of this Council’s meeting reveal three key pillars in the relations between the two countries:

ECONOMY

The economy, in its broadest sense, remains the focal point in the efforts to strengthen Saudi-French relations, as witnessed by the 39th session of the Joint Saudi-French Business Council which coincided with the Crown Prince’s visit. The participation of approximately 300 French companies, each dedicated to supporting and strengthening the work of the Council and its initiatives to support Vision 2030, and to enabling industrial investment opportunities, is evidence of the importance that France attaches to strengthening its partnership with the Kingdom. This re-energized interest is comes in light of Vision 2030 and the Kingdom’s unique comparative advantages and competitiveness. The vision is aimed at improving the business environment, developing the private sector and raising the level of its contribution to the national economy.

In this context, 19 memorandums of understanding were signed between French and Saudi companies during the Crown Prince’s visit, with a total value of more than 18 billion dollars. According to a statement by the French-Saudi Business Forum, the MOUs cover industrial sectors, such as petrochemicals and water treatment, as well as tourism, culture, health and agriculture.

Among the most prominent of these agreements, is a deal between Saudi national oil company Aramco and French oil giant Total worth 9 billion dollars that would see the construction of a petrochemical complex in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

Notable deals that were finalized include the following:

• Another $ 3 billion KSA Retail Agreement was signed between Saudi Aramco and Total

• Investment agreement between Arabian Technical Contracting Company and JCDecaux worth $54 million

• A $200 million agreement between SAUR International and International Aramoon Co. Ltd for investment in operating and maintenance projects and PPP projects in the water and sanitation sector in the Kingdom and the Gulf

• A $ 100 million agreement between France’s Five Capital Fund 1 and Saudi Arabia’s Edco for the purchase of 65 percent of Edco

• Another $ 100 million investment agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia’s Uturn and France’s Five Capital Fund Webedia to create the Arab world leader in the production and management of digital content in Saudi Arabia

• An industrial waste water treatment agreement worth $792 million was signed between Saudi Aramco and France’s Suez

• A cooperation project between GE-USA and Safran Aircraft Engines with Saudi Arabia’s Flynas has been valued at $5.5 billion.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) inspect arts at Louvre Museum in Paris, France on April 09, 2018. (Getty Images)

CULTURE

France is tapping into the business of culture to develop agreements with Saudi Arabia and profit from the heir to the throne’s goal of modernizing the conservative kingdom within the framework of Vision 2030. The cooperation accords cover cultural and artistic exchanges and include:

– An agreement signed for The Paris Opera house to help set up a national orchestra and opera in Saudi Arabia.

– Saudi Arabia will take part in the Cannes film festival for the first time next month, submitting a selection of short films.

– A protocol of cooperation was signed in the field of tourism which aims at exchanging experiences in the field of tourist destination management, developing human resources operating in the tourism sector and developing tourism products, in addition to classification of hotels, cultural tourism, environment, business and marine activities.

– A cooperation deal was signed between France and Saudi Arabia to develop the Saudi city of Al Ula. The 2,000-year-old city is endowed with archeological remnants. It was founded in the 6th century BC in a location that was at the center of trade routes for silk and spices through India, Arabia and Egypt. The location is where the tribe of Thamud, the people of Prophet Saleh, used to dwell north of the peninsula. It includes archeological remnants belonging to the ancient Kingdom of Lihyan, which ruled from the 5th to 2nd century BC. It is also believed that Prophet Muhammad has passed by the abandoned city on his way to the battle of Tabuk, in 630 AD. The agreement includes working to develop long-term cultural, heritage and tourism project to protect and develop the heritage and historical sites of Al-Ula Governorate. This will enable the local, regional and international visitors to learn about the richness of their cultural, historical and natural heritage and the Kingdom’s heritage in general, Arab civilizations and local values.

-A deal was signed in an effort to enhance cooperation in the heritage sector by exchanging experiences in managing historical sites, organising exhibitions, and managing museums. The main purpose of this deal is to develop handicrafts and traditional industries, train workers in the heritage activities, and organize mutual training courses.

It goes without saying that cooperation on cultural initiatives is not the first of its kind. The two countries have taken important steps to enhance their cultural rapprochement in the light of their respective cultural heritage, with the aim of strengthening their common ties.

POLITICS

Discussions on regional affairs, which brought together the Crown Prince, the French president and senior officials, reflected the extent of the consensus between the two countries on several crises in the region.  During a press conference on the sidelines of the visit, the Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir explained that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of France are compatible on many regional issues and that they cooperate closely in various fields, including their joint coordination in the fight against extremism and terrorism.

This is clearly demonstrated in their positions on the Yemeni crisis. President Macron confirmed that he would host a joint conference on Yemen by the summer “to clarify what is being done and what needs to be done.”Both sides affirmed the need for a political solution to end the suffering of the Yemeni people and condemned ballistic missile attacks by the Houthi militias on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a parallel context, the Republic of France affirmed its readiness to support the coalition in defending the legitimate government in Yemen, and UN agencies to accelerate delivery of humanitarian aid to all Yemenis, including the $ 1 billion humanitarian response plan committed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The same is true of cooperation on the African continent, which was also referred to by President Macron: “The two countries worked on the security of the Red Sea and on supporting the war on terror in Somalia. Saudi Arabia had provided $ 100 million to support the African Standby Force and had also accepted to support development programs,” he said.

However, it is important to bear in mind that this consensus in positions does not mean that they are entirely identical as there are differences between them on other issues, as is the case with all countries due to differences in their national interests and national security arrangements. This applies to Saudi Arabia and Frances different positions on Iran’s nuclear program. While President Macaron “agrees with Saudi Arabia on the need to curb Iran’s expansion of the region and its ballistic missile program,” it still “believes that Iran’s nuclear deal should be maintained.” On the other hand, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stresses that “The government of Iran does not serve the interests of its people. The money recovered after the nuclear agreement has not been invested in the prosperity of the Iranian people or development, and thanks to the nuclear agreement, it has received 150 billion dollars, and not one dollar has been used to launch a project or open a street, but it has worked to spread extremism and sponsor terrorism. Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, and we do not want to repeat the agreement which happened in 1938 and caused the second world war.” The Crown prince was referencing the Munich Treaty, signed by Germany, the Nazis, Britain, France and Italy on September 30, 1938. According to historians, the attempt by major powers to appease Hitler has killed millions of people and brought on the spiral of world war.

On the Iran deal, the Saudi Foreign Minister said: “Iran’s nuclear deal has a lot of shortcomings with regard to inspection mechanisms, which must be more accurate to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear powers.”

“There are two visions in the Middle East. The first is an ambitious vision that seeks to develop education, economy and areas that serve humanity and works to combat extremism and terrorism. This is what the Kingdom is doing. There is an evil vision that depends on interfering in the affairs of other countries and spreading hatred. This is what the Iranian regime and its affiliates are doing,” he added.

The practical reality has proved the Saudi orientation. Since the conclusion of this agreement, the Iranian government has not stopped its continuous interference in the region using its weapons and militias.

Although there are differences between Saudi Arabia and France on the issue of the Iranian nuclear agreement, there is consensus between them on the Syrian crisis. The kingdom condemned the chemical attack on Douma and called on international organizations to hold those responsible for the attack accountable. “The Kingdom may participate in an international response in Syria if necessary,” the Crown Prince said.

This position confirms what has already been highlighted that compatibility does not mean congruence, but rather a difference in the calculations and visions according to the interests of each party and their national security.

Macron was keen to stress his country’s support for the Kingdom’s position in rejecting Iranian interference in the affairs of other countries of the region. “We do not want Iranian interference in the elections in Iraq,” he said. He also rejected the demands of some French associations and organizations to stop the arms deals between the two countries, explaining that “all French arms sales to Saudi Arabia are carried out in accordance with international law.”

The French Ministry of Defense confirmed that a new arms deal was signed: “France has launched a new arms export strategy for Saudi Arabia, which has so far been handled by the ODAS company,” the official said, 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.”

Several memorandums and agreements for defense cooperation were signed between the two countries to develop the Saudi armed forces, the transfer and localization of technology, providing training and creating job opportunities in both countries, and to complete the necessary measures to support the joint African Sahel Force to combat terrorist organizations.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (5th L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (4th R) hold a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 10, 2018. (Getty Images)

WHAT’S NEXT?

Saudi-French relations are particularly important in light of the global changes and the rapid regional changes which require the exchange of views and coordination between the two countries in order to achieve security and restore stability and peace in the region. The outcomes of the visit revealed the centrality of the two countries’ relations and the importance of continuous consultation between their leaders to find the best ways to enhance their mutual relations and to solve the crises and issues affecting the region.

President Macron confirmed that he will be visiting the Kingdom during this year at the invitation of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. During the visit, it is expected that a document will be signed that will strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries, with combatting terrorism at the forefront of agreement.

Strengthening this partnership requires two paths. Firstly, French companies need to be given more opportunities to enter Saudi territory. It is important that these companies realize that there are promising opportunities in the Saudi market due to the attractive investment environment created by Vision 2030.  Secondly, the French leadership needs to understand the dangers of some of the policies pursued by international and regional parties in dealing with the issues of the region. At the forefront is Tehran’s ongoing interventions aimed at destabilizing the region and the security of its countries by establishing terrorist arms in some countries of the region, as well as supporting existing organizations with money and weapons.

In conclusion, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tour of five countries – one Arab and four Western – not only aimed to develop Saudi Arabia’s existing relations, but to also establish new partnerships that will transform the kingdom from an oil-dependent economy to a Middle East hub for trade and commerce.

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