PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his presidential palace on Thursday for a controversial dinner that marks a new step in the Saudi leader’s diplomatic rehabilitation – a decision that drew strong criticism in France after the horrific Saudi murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The prince’s visit to the oil-rich state comes after France and other European countries seek to secure energy sources to reduce their dependence on oil and gas supplies from Russia in the framework of its war against Ukraine. France is also a major arms and defense supplier to the Gulf countries.
It was the second leg – after Greece – of the Crown Prince’s first official visit to the European Union since Khashoggi’s death.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Macron could be counted on to raise human rights concerns with the prince, while also seeking to secure energy supplies from elsewhere than Russia.
“Obviously, it’s not about setting aside our principles. This is not to question our commitment to human rights. The president will surely have the opportunity to talk about it with Mr. Mohammed bin Salman,” Borne said.
But she added: “In a context where we know that Russia is cutting, threatening to cut, and cutting again the supply of gas and where we have tensions on energy prices, I think that the French wouldn’t understand if we didn’t talk to the countries that are the exact producers of energy.”
Russian energy company Gazprom on Wednesday reduced the amount of natural gas flowing through a major gas pipeline linking Russia to Europe to 20% of its capacity, blaming technical problems. Germany, however, called it a deliberate move to sow uncertainty and drive up prices amid the war in Ukraine.
European nations are rushing to bolster gas storage levels for the winter, fearing that Russia will completely cut gas exports – which are used for industry and to generate electricity and heat homes – for attempt to gain political clout on the bloc.
CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION
Hours before the leaders’ meeting, the crown prince was the target of a legal complaint filed Thursday in a Paris court by a human rights group alleging his complicity in Khashoggi’s murder.
A Washington-based group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, has called on French authorities to open a criminal investigation into the crown prince. The group said it filed a lawsuit arguing that the prince was complicit in the torture of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and his disappearance. He said two other rights groups backed his call for a French investigation and argued the prince should not have immunity from prosecution because he is not the Saudi head of state. .
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had no information about the complaint.
The prince’s journey is also seen as far from noble compared to other advocacy groups.
“By meeting the Crown Prince on French soil, while Saudi dissidents remain wrongfully detained, trapped at home by travel bans and targeted abroad, President Macron risks contributing to the dangerous normalization of a brutal man,” said James A. Goldston, executive director. director of the Justice Initiative.
Macron’s dinner will cap off a long day for the French leader: he was in Guinea-Bissau, wrapping up a three-country, four-day tour of Africa on Thursday morning.
The Elysee Palace said the war in Ukraine would be a priority on the working dinner agenda and added that Macron would address “human rights”, without giving further details. A press spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the usual practice of the French presidency, said “we have kept saying that the facts (of the murder) must be established “.
The crown prince has been regularly attracting big-name investors to the kingdom since Khashoggi’s murder. He also reset Saudi relations with Turkey, a key step towards rehabilitating its international position.
Western intelligence has determined that Prince Mohammed was an accomplice to the murder. The journalist’s body was dismembered with a bone saw, according to Turkish officials. The crown prince lost supporters in the West who were appalled and who had previously applauded his social reforms at home. He maintains that he had no knowledge of the operation, although it was carried out by people who reported directly to him.
Information for this article was provided by Abdullah al-Shirhri and John Leicester of The Associated Press.