Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto ruler closes his European tour in France in the face of criticism from human rights organisations

Macron repairs Mohammed bin Salman's image with "working dinner" at the Elysée Palace

photo_camera Bandar Aljaloud/Palacio Real saudí vía AP - After Greece, the Saudi crown prince will travel to France, where he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron

The clash of fists in Jeddah with US President Joe Biden was the photograph that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been coveting for months. Ostracised and dragging the label of "international pariah" since 2018, the 'de facto' ruler of the Wahhabi kingdom was seeking at all costs to put the 'Khassoghi affair' behind him and repair his image in a Western scene that shied away from his contact. It has not been easy for MBS. It has taken a war in Europe and the outbreak of an energy crisis for him to regain his position. 

The Saudi leader is celebrating his first European tour in four years after hosting Biden in Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago. On Wednesday he visited Athens, where he held a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding that includes numerous energy trade agreements in the areas of renewable energy, oil, gas, petrochemicals, as well as other technologies to reduce the effects of climate change, according to the Saudi news agency SPA. 

On his return from his tour of Africa, French President Emmanuel Macron has summoned MBS to the Elysee on Thursday evening for a "working dinner". It is not the first time that the two have met since 2018. The French leader travelled to Riyadh in December for a meeting with the Saudi crown prince. He was the first Western leader to visit him after the murder of critical journalist Jamal Khassoghi, a columnist for The Washington Post, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the express request of Bin Salman, according to intelligence information revealed by the CIA. 

The leaders' unofficial agenda includes several topics of interest. First, ways to alleviate the looming energy crisis in Europe will be discussed. The recurrent Russian gas cuts, a tool of pressure from the Kremlin, are forcing the continent to define a new containment strategy and seek more reliable partners. Saudi Arabia, the 'Desert Kingdom', has abundant crude oil reserves that could serve as an alternative to Russian energy. But its reliability is still questioned by its lack of respect for human rights, as amplified by Khassoghi's assassination. 

"We have to be vigilant on human rights and freedoms, and that will be a message that the president will convey to Bin Salman tonight, but Saudi Arabia is a partner, we have geopolitical supply issues and I think it's important to have these kinds of exchanges without giving up our goals and values, especially on respect for human rights", Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said in response to criticism, justifying the 'realpolitik' of double standards implemented by Macron, a champion of democratic values in the face of Putin but at the same time a partner of MBS.

Mitsotakis MBS

The Gallic opposition has been on the attack against the president en masse. So did civil society and human rights platforms. The most acidic was Yannick Jadot, the Greens' candidate in the last presidential elections, who wondered on Twitter whether "the dismembered body of journalist Khashoggi" would be served on the dinner menu. "Climate chaos? Peace and human rights? Overshoot day? No! Oil and weapons! The opposite of what should be done", the MEP concluded. 

The organisations Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and TRIAL International announced on Thursday that they had filed a complaint with the French prosecutor's office demanding the opening of an investigation against the Saudi crown prince for the atrocious murder of Jamal Khassoghi and also for his involvement in the war in Yemen, precisely another of the points to be discussed between the Elysée and the Wahhabi leader, since France is one of the main arms suppliers of the Riyadh regime. 

Another of the issues on the table will be the reactivation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, signed in 2015 under the Obama administration but violated in 2018 following the unilateral withdrawal of the United States by decision of former President Donald Trump. Saudi Arabia was not part of the negotiations in Vienna; France was, but they have different interests. A priori', Riyadh has no interest in seeing the agreement come to fruition, aligning itself with Israel. Macron advocates the resumption of a pact that hangs in the balance, but which would guarantee the paralysis of the Persian nuclear programme. 

Throughout his time at the Elysée, Macron has set himself up as the main interlocutor of the 'outcasts'. He has had no qualms about talking to MBS, just as he had no qualms about travelling to the Kremlin to meet Putin face-to-face weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He is willing to talk to everyone, or at least almost everyone. In this case, the French president has tastes in common with the Saudi leader. Both share a fondness for digitalisation and new technologies, one visited Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley and the other wants to turn France into a 'start up nation'. The conversation could start there.

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