PARIS - Saudi Arabia will employ French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra, under an agreement signed Monday during a visit to Paris by the kingdom’s modernising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The deal will see the Paris Opera company help the ultra-conservative Islamic nation 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 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 told AFP.

Prince Mohammed, 32, was hosted by President Emmanuel Macron for a three-hour dinner at Paris’s Louvre museum Sunday night after flying in on his first trip to France as heir to the Saudi throne.

Macron also tweeted a picture of the pair at the Louvre looking at the 19th-century masterpiece Liberty Leading The People by revolutionary painter Eugene Delacroix, which shows Liberty as a bare-breasted woman. “The discussions were friendly, which allowed the two men to establish a personal relationship,” Macron’s office said.

The two leaders 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.

Macron, 40, faces a diplomatic tightrope with the prince as he seeks to bolster his ties with the world’s top oil exporter while also managing relations with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran. He will host the prince for a gala dinner at the Elysee Palace on Tuesday.

Hollywood and Cannes

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 which is often associated in the West with exporting jihadist ideology. Saudi and French aides 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 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.

Abuses and bombing

Amid the flurry of announcements in France, campaigners mobilised to keep attention focused on French weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and rights abuses in the country.

The kingdom is the lead partner in a coalition of countries bombing and blockading Yemen, where a combination of fighting, disease and food shortages has led it to be dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN.

“France is potentially an accomplice to serious violations of humanitarian laws by selling weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia ,” said Aurelie Perrier from Amnesty International at a protest near the Eiffel Tower.

But government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux insisted there was a “clear interest for French industry” in continuing arms exports to Riyadh. “It’s an important part of our diplomacy,” he said, while adding: “That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye.”

Three out of four French people believe it is “unacceptable” for France, one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia , according to a YouGov poll.

Underlying tensions

Ahead of the trip to France, Saudi officials suggested relations were strong between Macron and the crown prince, both young leaders with reformist agendas. But the visit follows a period of underlying tensions.

Macron waded into a regional crisis last November when Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation on live television from Riyadh, apparently under pressure from Prince Mohammed. Macron invited Hariri to Paris for talks and he later rescinded his resignation, a development that analysts say exposed the limits of the prince’s authority.

Macron has also announced plans to be the first French president to visit Iran since 1976, as he seeks to build relations with the two competing regional powers in the Middle East.

NGOs pressure Macron over

Saudi weapons

Rights groups on Monday urged President Emmanuel Macron to pressure visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the war in Yemen, warning Riyadh may be using French weapons in the conflict.

“France is potentially an accomplice to serious violations of humanitarian laws by selling weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia , given what we know is taking place in Yemen,” said Aurelie Perrier, coordinator for Yemen and Saudi Arabia at Amnesty International France.

“We want to ask President Macron to stop arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and to lift the blockade on Yemen,” she told AFP at a protest under the Eiffel Tower as Prince Mohammed kicked off his visit to Paris.

Two other groups, the Weapons Observatory (Obsarm) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said the sheer volume of French weapons exports to Saudi pointed to the likelihood that they have been deployed in Yemen. The groups said much of the equipment was suitable for use in Yemen, while “confidential testimony” also pointed to the presence of French arms on the ground.

“If these indicators do not constitute proof, they throw serious suspicion on the massive presence and use of French military equipment in Yemen,” they said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia has since 2015 led a coalition bombing and blockading Yemen in a conflict that has left 10,000 people dead. A combination of fighting, disease and food shortages has led it to be dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office insisted last month that French land weapons sold to Riyadh were “defensive” and being used in Saudi Arabia to deter cross-border attacks.

He added that “surveillance measures” to track the use of French weapons had been “strongly reinforced in recent months” and that France was meeting its international commitments.

As the 32-year-old crown prince continues an international charm offensive that has included stops in the United States, Britain and Egypt, rights groups urged Macron to pressure his guest on human rights violations.

“Saudi Arabia remains one of the worst countries in the world in terms of its human rights records,” said Perrier.

The prince has used his tour to project his reforms - including the historic lifting of a ban on women driving, cinemas and mixed-gender concerts - as part of his pledge to return the kingdom to ‘moderate Islam’.

Prince Mohammed “considers himself a revolutionary, but if so, then he has to end the institutionalised oppression that has continued to build even after he came to power,” said Amnesty France director Sylvie Brigot-Vilain.

“Especially regarding voices that oppose the regime, who increasingly find themselves behind bars.”