Saudi soft power on the Seine: What should the French learn?

Najah Al-Otaibi

Published: Updated:

And so the world tour continues...the new reforming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s munificent caravan hoovering up expensive arms contracts from grateful western allies, and reassuring skeptics that Saudi Arabia has changed fundamentally for the better.

But the Riyadh gold making its way into the coffers of the UK and US governments will not be on display in France now; the relationship between these two countries is more nuanced than with others.

True, Paris is keen to strengthen its ties – especially in the wake of Brexit – when the UK’s role as most reliable EU ally for Saudi Arabia becomes vacant.

But the relationship between the two countries has not been easy ever since King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, found France’s colonial history troublesome.

Far easier to deal with the US which had none of the colonial hang overs of Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world. Even today France takes a very different stance on Qatar, Yemen and Iran than Riyadh would like.

The lesson will have been learned by Paris that to be on board with the modernizing Prince, and benefit from it, means to inhabit his worldview

Najah Alotaibi

In fact – in language rarely used in diplomatic circles – President Macron’s last trip to the Kingdom was described as “tense” after he refused to have the Elysee Palace’s policy towards Iran dictated by Riyadh. Yet he has softened a little since then – noting publicly that Iran’s missile program should be under surveillance, along with Tehran’s involvement in Syria.

But his public statements haven’t gone as far as far as Saudi Arabia would like. And Franco-Saudi shared views on Lebanon were tarnished last year by the sequence of events surrounding Lebanese Prime Minister.

So, with this background in mind what will France get at the end of Mohammed bin Salman’s visit? Forget lucrative arms contracts for the moment. Riyadh has decided that an exercise in soft power will get Paris to toe the line in future. Cue some touchy feely deals in tourism, culture and entertainment.

Entertainment industry

Which is good news if you like classical music. Saudi Arabia announced recently that it would invest $64 billion in developing its entertainment industry over the next years.

And as part of this the Crown Prince has signed an agreement with Paris to help set up a national orchestra and opera in Jeddah city.

There’s also an initiative to support the development of Saudi film and cinema industry. Saudi short films will this year – for the first time – be entered in the Cannes Film Festival.

There’s some neat timing in this as well, as it comes as the first cinema for decades is due to open in Riyadh on the 18th of this this month. The start, it’s hoped, of a thriving home-grown film industry.

But the biggest cultural deal being signed in France is an agreement for the French to help transform a huge chunk of almost uninhabited Saudi land into a multi-billion dollar open air museum.

France will also develop the al-Ula – a 5,000-year ancient valley in northwest – into a cultural tourism destination

But, is this what France was looking for in its relationship with the new powerful leader?

Probably not. But the lesson will have been learned by Paris that to be on board with the modernizing Prince – and to profit from it – means to inhabit his world view. And once Paris shows it can do that there will be much more to come.

Najah Alotaibi is a senior analyst with the the think tank Arabia foundation. You can follow her on Twitter here: @najahalosaimi.

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