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Saudi prince skips visit to mega tech incubator during French trip

[PARIS] Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday pulled out of touring a mega-campus for tech startups in Paris, an official in the French prime minister's office said, a visit that was meant to highlight deepening Franco-Saudi tech ties.

The powerful young prince who is behind modernising reforms in Saudi Arabia is on a three-day trip to France at a time when relations between the two countries have become more complicated, including over how to address Iran's regional role.

"It has been decided to keep working on defining Franco-Saudi entrepreneurial projects before envisaging a high-level visit," the Matignon source said.

Prince Mohammed, 32, and President Emmanuel Macron, 40, both paint themselves as champions of their nations' plugged-in youths with a modernising message that has resonated strongly with younger Saudis and French citizens.

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Prince Mohammed's decision to skip a visit to Station F, Europe's largest startup incubator founded by billionaire Xavier Neil, is likely to disappoint Mr Macron, especially after the crown prince met with technology titans in Silicon Valley last week.

Station F, which is headed by an Iranian-American, Roxanne Varza, said it did not know why the visit had been cancelled.

France nurtured closer ties with the Sunni-ruled kingdom under former president Francois Hollande, who was tough on Iran in nuclear negotiations and whose policies on conflicts across the Middle East have broadly overlapped with Saudi positions.

However, Prince Mohammed's uncompromising efforts to counter Iran's growing regional influence have sometimes been viewed by his successor, Emmanuel Macron, as counter-productive, diplomats say.

"The president speaks to everyone, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Qatar...." the French presidency said in a statement after the two dined on Sunday night at the Louvre museum.

The prince is not due to sign mega contracts in France as he did in the United States and Britain in the past month. The presidency statement said the two leaders would work on a strategic document that would lead to contracts by the year's end.

French officials dismiss suggestions the lack of lucrative accords reflects a weakening in the relationship. They point to a new "method" of working with the world's largest oil exporter that does not depend on eye-catching new business.

They will formally agree on Tuesday to cooperate on a massive tourism project that showcases Saudi history, part the kingdom's efforts to wean itself off a dependency on oil exports, open up its society and push social reform.

In a joint statement on Monday, the two countries said that among other projects the Paris National Opera would help the kingdom develop a national orchestra.

REUTERS