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Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives in France for 3-day visit

media Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the US MANDEL NGAN / AFP

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Le Bourget airport near Paris on Sunday morning as the desert kingdom's de facto ruler started a three-day visit to France.

The first day of the visit was to be private with sources close to the crown prince saying he might attend the closing concert of the Easter festival in the historic southern city of Aix-en-Provence.

He was to meet French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday and President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday afternoon.

Members of his entourage insists the trip is about forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals.

More than a dozen memorandums of understanding in tourism, energy and transport are set to be signed between French and Saudi organisations.

MBS, as he is commonly called, has shaken up the conservative kingdom since he was appointed heir to the crown by his father, allowing women to drive later this year and reopening cinemas after 35 years.

Yemen conflict and Iran

But he has also been heavily implicated in the conflict in Yemen and the worsening relations with Iran.

Macron intervened when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned while in Saudi Arabia last year, inviting him to Paris before he returned to Beirut and withdrew his resignation.

Bin Salman, who has spent the last three weeks in the US and has already visited the UK was reportedly unenthusiastic about coming to France.

"Not only has Saudi Arabia made friends with the United States but it seems to consider that country as its only partner in conversation," former diplomat and analyst Denis Bauchard told the AFP news agency. "So I think one of the issues will be to show that France is also an important partner, both politically, because France is on the UN Security Council and has an influence over Europe, but even with regard to the economy and the military."

Macron should support bin Salman's internal reforms, he argues. "Saudi Arabia has experienced profound change, a profound change in its society and a profound change because MBS will no doubt be the first sovereign of the new generation. And so I think that this movement should be met with sympathy and seen, especially by the French, with sympathy."

French arms sales under spotlight

France, the third top arms exporter in the world, is a major arms supplier and business partner of Saudi Arabia.

An MP with the ruling Republic on the Move party, Sebastien Nadot, has submitted a bill calling for a parliamentary investigation commission on arms sales to the parties involved in the Yemen conflict, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition fighting Houthi rebels, who it claims are backed by Iran.

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