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>> France will join Saudi Arabia in developing a multibillion dollar tourism project in the Gulf Kingdom. The mega development will showcase Saudi history at sites spanning an area the size of Belgium. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman signed the agreement during a visit to Paris. Reuters' Richard Locke says it's part of the kingdom's efforts to develop new industries away from oil.
>> It wants to diversify its economy and wean itself off oil exports. This tourism project also fits in to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform agenda. His ambitions to open up Saudi Arabia's conservative society and push through social reform.
Saudi plans to welcome tourists have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy.
The Al-Ula project is in a region best known for historical sites. It hopes to attract up to 2.5 million tourists a year. For France, the project offers an opportunity to gain a foothold in a multi-billion dollar Saudi project.>> The agreement paves the way for a Saudi-funded, French-run agency that will oversee the museum concepts, archeological excavations, but ultimately, will also issue the infrastructure contracts and hotel contracts, a potentially lucrative prize down the line.
The visit came at a time of complicated relations between Paris and Riyadh, with thorny issues like Iran and the war in Yemen making for a more strained relationship. However, France president Emmanuel Macron took on critics of the Prince during the visit, saying it was too easy to criticize the young leader's haste to reform, and urging detractors to give him time.