Between Soft Power and “Emancipation”, is Saudi Arabia’s Strategy Bearing Fruit?

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Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is received this Friday at the Elysée Palace by Emmanuel Macron.

INFLUENCE: Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is received this Friday at the Elysée Palace by Emmanuel Macron. Combining soft power and diplomatic empowerment, his strategy aims to smooth the image of the monarchy. With success ?

  • Emmanuel Macron will receive this Friday at the Elysee Palace Mohammed Bin Salman. The Saudi crown prince had already been received in July 2022 by the French president.
  • Iran, Lebanon, the war in Ukraine… Beyond current geopolitical issues, “MBS” continues its mission of flattening the image of Saudi Arabia by using soft power. A method that seems to be bearing fruit.
  • Jean-Loup Samaan (Ifri) and David Rigoulet-Roze (Iris), two researchers specializing in Gulf countries, analyze the attitude adopted by Saudi Arabia.

A ball with golden feet in the realm of black gold. By joining Al-Ittihad, Karim Benzema offered himself a final challenge, at the twilight of an immense career which will have propelled him to the rank of international star. With his ex-teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, who arrived a few months before him in the Saudi championship, the French footballer has already taken care of his statistics. Because the former Madrid player offered a decisive pass to a man barely older than him: Mohammed Bin Salman.

At 37, the Saudi crown prince has developed a new tactical scheme for his monarchy, with great blows of new diplomatic strategies. While keeping in mind an “obsession”: the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, devised in 2016, and should enable Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy. “His plan makes it possible to understand all his decisions, including the mobilization of soft power, of which ‘sport power’ is a part, analyzes David Rigoulet-Roze, associate researcher at Iris and editor-in-chief of the journal Orients Strategiques . . We can see it very well with Lionel Messi, who is officially the ambassador of tourism in the kingdom. And tourism is one of the sectors set to gain prominence under the plan.”

A change of image to attract investors

In this field, “MBS” draws inspiration from its Emirati and Qatari neighbours, even if “the scales are completely different”, specifies Jean-Loup Samaan, associate researcher at Ifri specializing in the Gulf countries, believing that it could be a “mass effect” in Saudi Arabia.

For the specialist, this image strategy is bearing fruit, at least on the diplomatic level. “Mohammed Bin Salman has become popular again, especially since Joe Biden’s visit last summer,” he notes. Four years after promising to make “MBS” a “pariah” on the international scene, the American president split a “check” with the crown prince.

“Diversifying the economy also involves improving the image, which is not necessarily easy given certain human rights liabilities and in particular the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 , supports David Rigoulet-Roze. For MBS, it is imperative to amend the image of the kingdom. It is a question of being more attractive for foreign investors, who, for the moment, are partially wait-and-see. »

Aware of being seated on an oil source which is drying up, “MBS” did not hesitate to be offensive on the subject. Thus, Saudi Arabia has reduced its oil production in order to increase its profits and garnish a substantial envelope to invest elsewhere.

A desire for emancipation on the international scene

Sport, pharaonic real estate projects, space conquest… Saudi Arabia is multiplying the sites. “Mohammed Bin Salman is firing on all cylinders and it may seem confusing, but there is underlying consistency. His plan also involves the mobilization and support of the Saudi population, especially young people. Within the framework of the space program, for example, there is the will to cultivate a certain national pride”, specifies David Rigoulet-Roze.

Faced with international news that is not lacking in hot issues, Saudi Arabia also aims to take initiatives, sometimes to the detriment of its historic American ally.

After six years of estrangement, Riyadh has made up with Tehran… With the help of China, two rivals of the United States. “There has been a rapprochement with Beijing on the economic, security and technological level. Moreover, Xi Jinping was received with great respect in Saudi Arabia (in December 2022), ”recalls Jean-Loup Samaan.

Mediation in Sudan, the protagonist in Lebanon, the gaze turned towards Asia, changing position on the war in Ukraine … As on the economic level, the Saudi kingdom continues to lead several front files. Topics that are sure to be discussed at the Elysée between “MBS” and Emmanuel Macron. “France, like other Western powers, is obliged to take note of this phenomenon of strategic empowerment of Riyadh, concludes David Rigoulet-Roze. But neither is it about letting Saudi Arabia get too close to China and Russia.”

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