Unafraid of reform: The kindred spirits of Saudi crown prince and Macron
Unafraid of reform: The kindred spirits of Saudi crown prince and Macron
- More than a dozen memorandums of understanding are set to be signed between French and Saudi organizations.
- Saudis announced a major deal with a French entertainment company.
Both are young men. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is just 32, while Macron was 39 when he became his country’s youngest-ever president, and turned 40 only recently, in December.
On the earlier legs of his global tour, which has taken him to Britain, the US and Egypt, the prince’s dealings have all been with leaders who are old enough to be his parents. US President Donald Trump is 71, British Prime Minister Theresa May is 61 and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is 63. Macron is of the prince’s generation.
Both are ambitious and both are in a hurry. The crown prince certainly makes no secret of it, telling Time magazine in a recent interview: “I don’t want to waste my time. I am young. ”
Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s wide-ranging plan for reforming its economy and society, is the prince’s brainchild, and though the name implies the notional target for the changes is 2030, it often seems that the prince does not want to wait that long.
Macron was so impatient for change in France — and so ambitious to be the one to implement it — that he announced his candidacy for president without bothering to court endorsement from any political party. Once a member of the Socialist party, he neither returned to that fold nor sought a place in another. Instead, he formed his own movement in April 2016, named it “En Marche!” (suitably dynamic, it translates loosely as “Let’s go!”) and got on with the task of winning over the country. Thirteen months later, he was elected president with 66 percent of the vote.
Mohammed bin Salman also acceded to his position as heir to his father, King Salman, through a vote. As he explained to Time magazine, he could not have become crown prince without the endorsement of the Allegiance Council, the body responsible for determining future succession to the throne of Saudi Arabia.
The council is made up of sons and grandsons of King Abdul Aziz, founder and first monarch of Saudi Arabia. Currently, there are 34 members.
“So I get the highest vote in the history of Saudi Arabia, more than anyone before me,” the prince told Time. “I got 31 from 34 votes of the Allegiance Council. So this is the highest.”
The next highest vote ever recorded was 22, he added.
Neither leader appears to have a great fear of upsetting sections of their domestic audience in the pursuit of radical reforms. In France, that is a guaranteed consequence of taking on the unions and challenging public-sector workers over their working hours or retirement age. French transport workers have been on strike for a week now.
But Macron is committed to reforming French labor laws, ridding the country of its reputation for inflexibility and old-style bosses-versus-unions confrontation and making France more business-friendly.
Similarly, the crown prince is well aware that not everyone in Saudi Arabia approves of his reforms. But he also knows that his contemporaries, the young, who make up two-thirds of the population, are mostly with him.
So there should be much on which to build a strong rapport when Mohammed bin Salman arrives in Paris on Sunday night for a two-day visit.
The visit will concentrate on culture, tourism, investment and new technology. The prince is due to visit the French capital’s start-up hub, Station F. However, there has been no hint about new contracts to be signed.
Instead, Macron’s officers have spoken of a “new cooperation” with Saudi Arabia.
“We want a new cooperation, concentrating less on contracts and more on investing in the future, especially in digital and renewable energy, with a common vision,” is the word from the Elysée Palace.
The word “vision” is certainly one the crown prince understands well.
“I suspect the objective for the trip to France is pretty much the same as the visit to the US and the UK — to present Mohammed bin Salman as the future leader of Saudi Arabia and to highlight investment opportunities in an evolving economic and social environment there,” said Jerry Feierstein, director of Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute.
“The Saudis have already announced a major deal with a French entertainment company to build movie theaters in the Kingdom. They may be interested in more French investment in the entertainment or tourism sectors.
“There may also be interest on both sides in discussing Saudi plans to develop their nuclear energy sector where the French have major capacity. Finally, there may be some discussion on defense purchases.”
As for Saudi Arabia, a source close to the royal delegation told AFP: “This is not a traditional state visit. It is about forging a new partnership with France, not just shopping for deals.”
Some observers view the visit as an expression of confidence by the prince.
AFP reports that more than a dozen memorandums of understanding are set to be signed between French and Saudi organizations in the fields of tourism, energy and transport. There is also scope for stronger cooperation on combating terrorism.
Experts say Macron also has to balance strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia with managing relations with other countries in the region, especially Iran. The prince’s sojourn in the US appears to have brought Riyadh and Washington closer together. President Donald Trump’s dislike of the Iran nuclear deal is well known.
Denis Bouchard of the French Institute of International Relations said Macron has to persuade Mohammed bin Salman that “it is better than have the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran than no deal at all.”
The prince and the president have met once before, when Macron stopped off briefly at Riyadh airport en route to Abu Dhabi to weigh into the crisis sparked by the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation live on television from Saudi Arabia.
But Jerry Feierstein warned that for all the similarities between them it would be wrong to assume the crown prince and Macron will automatically become best friends. There are other contenders for that role, he said.
“Certainly Macron and Mohammed bin Salman would have more in common than with Trump, who is old enough to be the prince’s grandfather. But the crown prince does seem to have a close relationship with (Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, who is also closer in age.”
We have a story to share with the Saudi people, says new US official in Riyadh
- We have a story to tell and a story to share in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi people. We are pleased that so many Saudis want to study in the United States: US Public Affairs Counselor in KSA
RIYADH: Cultural and educational exchange programs between Saudi Arabia and the United States “help build stronger ties between the two countries and bring them closer together,” according to Brian Shott, the new US Public Affairs Counselor in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking at a reception to welcome him at the US embassy in Riyadh on September 18, he said: “One of the main things we do is we try to share aspects of the United States and of American culture, but we also learn from Saudis and Saudi culture.”
In her opening speech, the embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Martina Strong also highlighted the enduring relationship between the two countries, saying: “Tonight is a celebration, a celebration of a friendship that has extended over many, many decades.”
Shott, who previously served in Morocco, Cairo and Baghdad, will be in Saudi Arabia for the next two years, during which he will promote educational and cultural exchanges.
“There are some real opportunities here and we have been fortunate enough to be able take advantage of partnerships with Saudi organizations and Saudi agencies, whether it is the General Authority for Culture or the Ministry of Education,” he said.
“We have a story to tell and a story to share in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi people. We are pleased that so many Saudis want to study in the United States.”
Meanwhile, the reception also served as a farewell to Robin Yeager, the cultural attache in Riyadh. She said that it had been a “very dynamic time to be in Saudi Arabia. It has been a pleasure and an honor to be here at a time when I get to know first-hand the future that Saudis are trying to build.”
The night that women were were given the right to drive, she said she went out and saw the “thrill on their faces.” To assist with empowerment and other progressive policies, embassy staff work on social issues and provide leadership training for women’s groups, she said.
“It is beautiful because they take something that an American expert talks to them about and they turn it into the Saudi way to approach it,” she added. “It’s not that we are changing things; it’s that we are giving them tools, so they can build what they want to build.”