Less than a week after leading a Saudi delegation to St. Petersburg and signing six agreements with Russia, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in Paris with another delegation to conclude billions in new economic and military deals with France.
The prince met with President Francois Hollande, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Mohammed bin Salman was accompanied by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir and senior Saudi defense officials. The visit follows a French visit to Riyadh in May when Hollande participated in a Gulf Cooperation Council summit, a rare honor for a foreign head of state.
This week, France and Saudi Arabia signed agreements for $12 billion in arms sales, including helicopters and naval vessels. Saudi Arabia is also funding $3 billion in French arms sales to Lebanon. The French are also considering a Saudi request to build two nuclear reactors in the kingdom.
In the discussions on regional issues, the Saudis focused on Yemen where Saudi forces are engaged in their war against the Zaydi Houthi rebels. The war is Mohammed bin Salman’s top priority, but it has not brought decisive results. Instead the richest countries in the Arab world seem stalemated in bombing the poorest country in the Arab world. Yemen is heading toward a humanitarian catastrophe.
France has supported the Saudi war in Yemen in the United Nations. It has also been the toughest negotiator in the P5+1 talks with Iran on the nuclear issue. The Saudis want any deal with Tehran to retain as many sanctions as possible— especially on Iranian arms procurement.
The back-to-back visits to Russia and France underscore the critical role Mohammed bin Salman plays in his father’s cabinet. His profile in the Saudi media is constantly rising, and his role in representing King Salman abroad unique. No Saudi prince has enjoyed this high a profile in decades.
[On Russia, Saudi Arabia and oil prices] This is testing out what prices everyone can live with, and it sounds like the Russians can live with prices slightly lower than what the Saudis want to live with. How durable is this Russia-Saudi agreement? They made it under some serious duress after the price drops from 2014-16, and they didn't have much choice. Do their interests align over the long term? We may begin to see the answer as they begin to chat at the G20.
[On oil prices] The question is whether they want to get crosswise with the Saudis or not. It's not friendly cooperation, especially the Saudis and the Russians. This is definitely more a marriage of convenience than love.