PARIS: Saudi Arabia will employ French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra, under an agreement signed on Monday during a visit to Paris by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The deal will see the Paris Opera company help the oil-rich kingdom produce its own classical music and shows, a further sign of Prince Mohammed’s desire to change the image of his homeland.
He has already announced the lifting of a ban on women driving, the re-opening of cinemas for the first time in over three decades and new mixed-gender concerts, despite opposition from religious hardliners.
The kingdom also revealed on Monday that it would enter short films at the Cannes cinema festival for the first time and send an official delegation to the celebration of often edgy and subversive silver-screen art on the Riviera this May.
“I cannot think of a better partner for culture and art than France,” Saudi Culture Minister Awwad Alawwad said.
Prince Mohammed, 32, was hosted by President Emmanuel Macron for a three-hour dinner at Paris’s historic Louvre museum on Sunday night after flying in on his first trip to France as heir to the Saudi throne.
“The discussions were friendly, which allowed the two men to establish a personal relationship,” Macron’s office said.
They will now work on a “strategic document” involving a series of contracts to be signed by Macron during a visit to Saudi Arabia later this year, his office said, without further details.
Macron, 40, faces a diplomatic tightrope in talks with the prince as he seeks to bolster his ties with the world’s top oil exporter, while also managing relations with the kingdom’s arch-rival Iran.
He will host the prince for a gala dinner at the Elysee Palace on Tuesday.
Prince Mohammed’s visit is part of a global tour that has already seen him travel to the United States, Britain and Egypt as he seeks to project a more moderate vision of his country.
Saudi and French aides had stressed before the trip that cultural ties, as well as new business opportunities, would be at the heart of two days of talks between government and private-sector figures from both countries.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
The announcement about the Cannes film festival came after Prince Mohammed dined last week in Hollywood with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, along with film studio bosses and famed American actors including Morgan Freeman.
Amid the flurry of announcements in France, campaigners were also mobilised to keep attention focused on French weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and rights abuses in the country.