Saudi Crown Prince MBS meets Emmanuel Macron during European rehabilitation tour


PARIS — Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman held a long handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace on Thursday, in the latest sign of the crown prince’s rehabilitation nearly four years after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mohammed’s trip to France, where he attended a working dinner with Macron, followed by a stop in Greece this week to sign a wave of bilateral agreements.

He also met this month in Riyadh with President Biden who, as a candidate, had pledged to make the prince an outcast. And he paid a state visit in June to Turkey, which once led the charge to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Khashoggi – a Saudi citizen, Washington Post opinion columnist and critic of the crown prince – who was dismembered in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

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These high profile encounters with Mohammed would have been hard to imagine not so long ago. But the war in Ukraine and a slowing global economy have reaffirmed the Saudi kingdom’s status as a key source of global energy and investment and led world leaders to call for help, including increased of oil production. Macron, Biden and some other Western leaders have also argued that there is no way to deal with global crises, like the war in Yemen, without the help of the crown prince, who could rule Saudi Arabia for a while. decades.

Mohamed’s reception in the halls of the French presidential Élysée palace on Thursday evening promised to mark another breakthrough in its bid for re-acceptance on the international stage. “It’s a symbolic game-changer,” said Sebastian Sons, a Saudi researcher at the CARPO think tank. “He thinks he can now rely on Europe’s energy needs – and that’s exactly the narrative he’s selling right now.”

The crown prince’s diplomatic inroads came despite continued pressure from human rights groups to hold him accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. Biden’s meeting with the crown prince has been called a “treason” by human rights groups and Saudi dissidents. And hours before Macron and Mohammed met, a group founded by Khashoggi said it had filed a criminal complaint in France against Mohammed which called him an “accomplice” in the journalist’s torture and disappearance.

“As a party to the United Nations conventions against torture and enforced disappearances, France is required to investigate a suspect such as Bin Salman if he is present on French territory,” said a statement from the group, Democracy. for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. , which filed a lawsuit with two other organizations, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Trial International.

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US intelligence agencies have concluded that the killing was ordered by the Crown Prince. Mohamed denied any prior knowledge of the killing or having ordered it. Saudi Arabia has blamed Khashoggi’s death on rogue state agents.

This week’s trip marks Mohammed’s first tour of Western Europe since the murder.

In Greece, officials praised the crown prince. “We honor and admire his leadership, his vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the way the Kingdom is moving forward,” Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis told Arab News.

Mohammed has sought to portray his country as more than just a global oil tap, but also as a green role model. He revealed new details about his vision for “Neom”, a futuristic desert city made up of skyscrapers over 100 miles long. Greece and Saudi Arabia also signed an agreement to deepen cooperation on renewable energy and hydrogen production.

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“I think that’s exactly what Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as: not only as an oil supplier, but also as a partner in terms of renewable energy,” Sons said, adding that a Greater focus on Saudi Arabia’s green energy plans could boost the crown prince’s personal image too.

In France, officials said the two leaders would discuss Europe’s energy needs, among other issues, and that Macron planned to raise his human rights concerns with the crown prince.

Human rights groups and members of the French opposition expressed outrage at the meeting.

“On the dinner menu of Emmanuel Macron and MBS: the dismembered body of journalist Khashoggi? Climate chaos? Peace and human rights? », French Green Party politician Yannick Jadot wrote on Twitter, using Mohamed’s initials. “No! Oil and arms! The exact opposite of what should be done!” he added.

Macron’s critics have been particularly dismayed by continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia – one of France’s biggest buyers – even after other countries curbed arms sales to the kingdom or completely halted exports.

Macron and Mohammed have met several times since Khashoggi’s murder, including last December, when the French president became the first major Western leader to visit the pariah prince in Saudi Arabia.

Macron’s allies have defended his interactions with the crown prince and said the growing perception of Saudi Arabia as a potential partner was necessary. “Talking to all the Gulf countries seems to me to be an absolute necessity,” Aurore Bergé, head of Macron’s parliamentary group, told the French public broadcaster.

“The rehabilitation of the murderous prince will be justified in France as in the United States by arguments of realpolitik”, declared the secretary general of Amnesty International. Agnes Callamard tweeted. “Against soaring oil prices, record inflation, the results of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – what can our human rights arguments do?”

But, she continued, each time “values ​​are deceived by those who claim to be their guarantors, we get closer to the abyss”.

Although human rights groups did not expect French authorities to act on the complaint filed on Thursday, “we are looking at the long term here,” said Henri Thulliez, a French lawyer who represents DAWN and the other groups, in an interview.

The complaint “could pave the way for a long criminal investigation, which would be carried out by an investigating judge from the Paris court”, he said.

The complaint argues that Mohamed “does not have immunity from prosecution because as crown prince he is not the head of state.” The Elysee Palace, in a briefing for journalists on Thursday, said leaders on official visits to the country enjoy immunity, but did not weigh in on the merits of the complaint.

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The crown prince is also named as a defendant in lawsuits filed in the United States, including one filed two years ago by DAWN and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée. In that case, a judge asked the Biden administration to say whether it thinks the crown prince should be granted immunity from prosecution.

Lawyers for Mohammed have argued that in the United States, the crown prince enjoys sovereign immunity in civil suits. Mohammed’s father, King Salman, is the ruler of Saudi Arabia, although the crown prince is widely regarded as the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom.

Fahim reported from Istanbul. Elinda Labropoulou in Athens contributed to this report.

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