Investigating the death of writer Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron travelled in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for face-to-face discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becoming the first prominent western leader to set foot on Saudi Arabian land since the killing.
Macron views Saudi Arabia to be critical in achieving a regional peace agreement with Iran, as well as an ally in the battle against Islamist extremists from the Middle East to West Africa, and as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Africa.
In spite of the fact that France is one of Saudi Arabia’s primary arms suppliers, the country has come under increasing pressure to review its arms sales as a result of the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which is now experiencing one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises.
However, although relations between Paris and Riyadh were better under Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, France has not experienced the economic benefits of the improved relationship to far. Although Macron urged naysayers to give the then 33-year-old leader-in-waiting some time prior to Khashoggi’s death, their friendship has soured in recent years.
During Macron’s visit, a corporate delegation of over 100 businesses, including TotalEnergies, EDF, Thales, and Vivendi, will participate in an investment forum.
Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Macron denied claims that he was attempting to legitimise the crown prince, stating that the region’s many challenges could not be addressed by ignoring the kingdom’s plight.
In light of the Khashoggi case, we (might) opt to forego a foreign policy in the area, a decision that some may support, but I believe France has a significant role to play in the region.” The fact that we are complicit or forget does not imply any of these things,” Macron said.
Most of the recent contracts have been for the Al-Ula tourist project, which intends to bring the kingdom’s Nabatean past to life as part of Saudi Arabia’s diversification effort to wean the country’s economy from oil earnings.
While seeking additional weaponry from the United Governments, Gulf Arab states have expressed scepticism about the United States’ commitment to the area at the same time.
In response to the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which has challenged Riyadh on its human rights record and its involvement in the Yemen conflict, as well as published information tying bin Salman to Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia has expressed frustration with the approach.
He has categorically denied any participation in the assassination of a journalist inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey last month. The crime generated international anger and tarnished Prince Mohammed’s reputation.
According to Agnes Callamard, secretary general of the human rights organisation Amnesty International, “whether it was intended or not, (this trip) adds to a programme of rehabilitating the Saudi prince.” The fact that France, a nation that is committed to human rights, is the instrument of this policy “pains me much.”
Macron is the first major Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus last year, which ended Riyadh’s chances of hosting the G20 during its presidency in 2020.
The two leaders are likely to address regional concerns, including Iran’s nuclear programme and Lebanon, where Macron has so far been unable to persuade Gulf Arab powers, afraid of Iran-backed Hezbollah’s clout, to cooperate in efforts to find a solution to the country’s conflict.