By Nathalie Goulet *
Paris is still buzzing since the visit of the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and now eagerly awaits Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who visits the French capital shortly after his meeting with the US President Joe Biden.
In this month of July, Paris is a destination of choice for the two great powers of the Arabian Peninsula. There are set pieces: cooperation between France and Saudi Arabia is the same as with the United Arab Emirates, including military cooperation, economic cooperation and investments, climate action, implementation of a common energy policy strategy and the fight against radical Islam.
Saudi Arabia has suffered many terrorist attacks and is very good at dealing with the threat of extremism. An institution to advise and care for former militants was created to counter this security threat 20 years before France set up its de-radicalization units (Quartiers de Prize en Charge de la Radicalisation, or QPR).
This was followed a few years later by the notorious Etidal, the Global Center for Countering Extremist Ideology, which uses artificial intelligence to probe social networks and track down terrorists.
Then there is the extraordinary cultural cooperation in the transformation of AlUla and Hegra, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2008. The site includes some of the most important treasures of the Nabataean civilization and is developed by the French Agency for the development of AlUla, chaired by Gérard Mestrallet.
The magnificent site has been excavated by French archaeologists who have been working there for more than 10 years. It is an exceptional destination for tourists who would never have thought of visiting Saudi Arabia before.
Even more remarkable is the NEOM smart city being built on the shores of the Red Sea. Disbelief was widespread at the country’s modernization policy with the Vision 2030 strategy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Yet this is now the reality for Saudi youth and the world should wake up to the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the country over the past five years.
But beyond these set pieces, there is the real substance of the visit: Do you remember the impeccable diplomatic service of President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 when tensions were at their highest in the region? His trip to Riyadh helped relieve them.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to France takes place in the context of an energy crisis and a new architecture of alliances, seen in the axis formed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, and seen in the effects of the Abraham Accords, to which Saudi Arabia is not a party.
Saudi Arabia therefore has an important role to play in the defense of the Palestinians, totally neglected by the Pax Americana and the philosophy of the status quo.
The world is unstable and faces major security challenges, so the Saudi visit to Paris is a strong signal.
It comes as President Macron wraps up a quick tour of Benin and Cameroon. We know Saudi Arabia’s role in Africa, and joint action against terrorism in West Africa will be an important topic. In addition, to boost the development of this part of the world, Saudi Arabia has invested 1 billion dollars in 2021 through the Saudi Fund for Development.
Africa will undoubtedly be on the agenda of discussions between President Macron and the Crown Prince.
The same goes for Iran, the other hot topic of the day, with the difficult resuscitation of the nuclear agreement, while Iran remains a threat to the Kingdom through its proxy strategy and the Houthi militia.
For a country that was until recently synonymous with resistance to change, Saudi Arabia is embarking on a delicate phase of very rapid modernization.
Navigating between tradition and modernity, Saudi Arabia is still in the midst of social change. This is a crucial step because there will be no turning back, given that more than a quarter of the population is under 14 years old.
France must support these changes, including those affecting institutions, as well as those affecting difficult subjects such as human rights. Saudi Arabia is a partner of France.
I had the honor of meeting the Crown Prince at length in Paris a few years ago. During the meeting, he clearly presented his 2030 plan for the modernization of Saudi Arabia. This process is now well and truly under way and one only has to look at the streets and restaurants of Riyadh or Jeddah to be convinced.
All is not perfect, but Paris, like Riyadh, was not built in a day.
- Nathalie Goulet is a member of the Senate of France, representing the department of Orne (Normandy). Twitter: @senator61