When French President Emmanuel Macron flew into Riyadh for hastily arranged talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November it was all smiles in public, but in private a tough dialogue over Iran signalled a change between the allies.
Whether that was a momentary tiff or a longer-lasting complication may become clear when Prince Mohammed arrives in Paris on Sunday for a two-day visit that will focus on the crises in Yemen, Syria and Qatar and the Iran nuclear deal.
After trips to Britain and the United States with major contracts envisaged, the prince, or MBS as he is also known, will attend cultural events, political meetings and an economic forum. While a tourism project between the two countries will be announced, MBS is not expected to clinch any mega-deals.
French officials dismiss any notion that the absence of huge contracts reflects any weakening in the relationship, saying they seek a new “method” of working with the world’s largest oil exporter that does not depend on eye-catching new business.
A warm relationship between Riyadh and Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande did not result in the sharp expansion of business Paris had sought.
“Competition is fierce so we had to rethink the models of relationships. Less talk about major contracts and more focus on sectors that are less spectacular such as health, education and tourism,” said a senior French diplomat.
But analysts note the 32-year-old Prince Mohammed has emphasised closer ties with US President Donald Trump just at a time when Macron has in turn sought to improve relations with Iran and vowed to preserve the nuclear deal.
Several Western and Arab diplomats describe the November exchange as tense. According to three officials, the meeting was dominated by Prince Mohammed threatening to curb relations with France if Macron did not alter his desire to dialogue with Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival, and push business interests there.
Macron, the officials said, reminded Prince Mohammed of France’s position in the world as a nuclear power, permanent member of the Security Council member and that France was free to do what it wanted.
In recent years, France had nurtured new links with the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states due to its tough stance on Iran in nuclear negotiations, and the broad similarity of their policies on conflicts across the Middle East.
However, Prince Mohammed’s uncompromising efforts to counter Iran’s growing influence in the combustible Middle East are sometimes perceived as reckless in Paris.
“The relationship could go either way, but it’s clear that Prince Mohammed feels more love from Trump than Macron,” said a second French diplomat.
“While Macron recognises the reforming aspirations, he sees that MBS could be a real loose cannon and what he is doing in Yemen and Qatar and the talk on Iran has potential to add fuel to regional fire.”
The visit comes amid growing pressure on Macron at home from lawmakers and rights groups over France’s weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
A private letter sent to Macron from 12 international non-governmental organisations urged him to pressure MBS to ease a blockade on Yemeni ports and suspend French arms sales.
“It is a bit of a new method of cooperation with Saudi Arabia that relies less on contracts, admittedly important but intermittent, and which will translate into a common vision. This is the general tone that will be given,” an official in the French presidency said.