What the Saudi Crown Prince’s tour of Greece and France says about the Kingdom’s place on the international scene

PARIS: The war in Ukraine has triggered an energy supply crisis and upset the global balance of power, prompting a flurry of diplomatic activity. Saudi Arabia is a nation that has reaped the benefits of recent engagements.

Energy concerns have restored the Kingdom’s image in the eyes of European powers as a key player in this post-COVID multi-polar world order – an order that could rebalance oil markets and perhaps invite the continent to a clean energy future. .

The diplomatic circuit began in April when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. This was followed in mid-July by US President Joe Biden’s visit to Jeddah.

On July 26, the Crown Prince traveled again, this time to Athens for talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the country’s business community. Two days later, it was France’s turn to welcome the crown prince.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the Acropolis during the Saudi leader’s visit to Athens on Wednesday. (SPA)

These latest stops mark Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first visit to the EU since 2018, when relations with Washington and the Kingdom’s European allies soured. Today, in the face of new economic realities, the past, it seems, is well and truly over.

Increasing Europe’s oil and gas supply has become a critical issue following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting Western embargo on Russian hydrocarbons.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in Western capitals as the cause of this disruption, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen as the cure. As a result, the crown prince entered into talks with the Greek and French leaders from a position of strength.

Western capitals want to convince the world‘s biggest oil exporter to open the floodgates and lower prices, which has contributed to a cost of living crisis for many countries still emerging from the economic turmoil of the pandemic. .

Riyadh has been reluctant to meet Western demands, however, in part because it has strong partnerships with Russia, such as the Siberia natural gas project led by Russian group Novatek.

The stage is therefore set for Saudi Arabia to reap the benefits of Western re-engagement.

The Saudi delegations, however, did not arrive empty-handed. While in Athens, the Crown Prince signed agreements on shipping, energy, defence, waste management and culture. Experts say the joint project to install a cable linking the two countries is particularly important, promising to provide Europe with cheaper energy.

Saudi-Greek cooperation could transform Greece from an over-indebted nation into a regional energy, trade and communications hub linking Europe and Asia, and a gateway for new hydrogen technologies green to help the continent achieve its net zero goals.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s 19th largest economy, has launched a program of economic and social reforms to rethink its future and its place in the region – Vision 2030 – and is keen to attract outside investment.

The vision, launched in 2016, proposes a new, diversified model of economic development that is more inclusive – especially for women and youth – and that will create jobs and wealth in sectors beyond hydrocarbons, tourism, entertainment and technology to retail. , renewable energy and smart city megaprojects.

By 2030, these new industries could create revenues equivalent to those currently generated by oil, or about 250 billion dollars.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shown his determination to radically transform the Saudi economy and society by freeing it from its dependence on hydrocarbons, which account for 42% of its gross domestic product, 70% of its income and 90% of its exports .

Despite the economic setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation is already underway. Over the next decade, the Kingdom will establish itself as a major player in tourism (with 100 million visitors by 2030), entertainment (with an $8 billion market) and defense industry. leading edge through technology transfer.

Then there is the prospect of growth in renewable energy, manufacturing and mining, the Kingdom’s ambitions in food security, biotechnology and artificial intelligence, not to mention logistics and airport infrastructure plans. in large scale.

To fuel this transformation, the Kingdom relies on its Public Investment Fund – a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund – which recently acquired stakes in Starbucks, Marriott, Disney, Boeing, City Group, Facebook, the German Signa Sports, Dutch TMF Group, as well as bought Newcastle United FC

On the strength of this wealth, Riyadh intends to build alongside Saudi Aramco, the world’s leading oil exporter, major national benchmark companies in transport, mining, renewable energies, digital and automotive.

And the cultural sector will not be outdone either. The Kingdom is a candidate to host the 2030 World Expo, after seeing its pavilion awarded the best exhibition venue at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Perhaps the most striking project the Kingdom has launched is NEOM – a contraction of the Greek word “Neo” or “new” and the letter “M” for mostaqbal, or “future” in Arabic. This $500 billion smart city will be at the forefront of technology and sustainability, and promises to revolutionize the urban experience.

Last year, during the fifth edition of the Future Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the desert”, foreign investors learned the Arabic word Marhaba – “welcome”. It is a word that will shape relations with the Kingdom over the next decade.

During the forum, the Saudi Crown Prince presented world leaders in finance and technology with a clear ambition: to make the Kingdom a key player in the global economy.

When he meets French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris this week, the Crown Prince will bring that same sense of ambition and purpose, bolstered, no doubt, by the Kingdom’s new economic clout.

• Azouz Begag is a writer and former minister (2005-2007), researcher in economics and sociology. He is a researcher at the CNRS. Twitter: @AzouzBegag

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News.

Herman C. Harkins