French president Emmanuel Macron is hosting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a dinner meeting at the Élysée Palace on Thursday night, furthering the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in the west four years after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Like US president Joe Biden, Macron has put human rights concerns and climate change on the back burner as the west seeks to persuade the Gulf states to produce more oil and gas to calm world energy markets following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and western sanctions against Moscow.
Élisabeth Borne, French prime minister, said France remained committed to human rights but given Russian restrictions on gas exports to the EU “the French wouldn’t understand it . . . if we didn’t discuss energy with countries that are energy producers”.
Two non-governmental organisations, including one founded by Khashoggi, said they had launched a civil case in Paris on Thursday against Prince Mohammed for complicity in torture and murder, although the Elysée said he was protected by immunity as a foreign leader.
A senior French official said if Macron wanted to be useful in helping Europe through the energy crisis as well as resolving issues in the Middle East such as the Iran nuclear issue “the only way is to speak with all our interlocutors. It’s not about hypocrisy, it’s about being effective”.
Macron was the first leader of a large western state to visit Saudi Arabia since the 2018 murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, when he met Prince Mohammed in Jeddah in December last year. He was trying then to broker a settlement to a dispute between Saudi and Lebanese leaders over the war in Yemen and the role of Iran in the Middle East.
This time the conversation is expected to focus on urgently needed energy supplies for the EU as Europe seeks to reduce its dependency on oil and gas from Russia. France in turn is expected to emphasise its willingness to supply its wheat to Middle Eastern countries whose supplies from Ukraine have been disrupted by the war.
“There are also geopolitical questions,” said Dorothée Schmid, a Middle East expert at Ifri, the French foreign relations institute, noting western fears that many countries around the world were refusing to condemn Russia for invading a sovereign state. Western countries, she said, had “very few levers” but wanted “to assure themselves that the whole non-aligned world doesn’t end up siding with the Russians”.
For the Saudis and for Prince Mohammed, who met Greek leaders this week on his first trip to the EU since Khashoggi’s murder, a key aim of the trip is to use the west’s energy dependency to ensure that the 2018 killing does not continue to undermine the international reputation of Saudi Arabia and its day-to-day leader.
“What’s pretty striking is that the Saudis are trying to surf on this wave to absolutely rehabilitate Mohammed bin Salman,” said Schmid. “There is the feeling of a rush.”
The CIA had concluded that Prince Mohammed authorised the operation to “capture or kill” veteran journalist Khashoggi, whose corpse was cut up and smuggled out of the consulate after the murder, although the crown prince denied any involvement and Riyadh said it was a “rogue operation”.
Biden, who had said in his election campaign that he would treat the kingdom as a pariah and refuse to engage with Prince Mohammed, changed his tune and visited Saudi Arabia last week, greeting the prince with a fist bump and asking Riyadh to boost oil output.
A senior US administration official speaking to reporters on Thursday said: “we are optimistic that there could be some positive announcement coming out of the next Opec meeting”.
François-Aïssa Touazi of Medef, the French employers’ federation, said on Thursday that energy supplies had become a priority and France was relying on Saudi Arabia to soften the blow from the war.
“The EU needs the energy co-operation of the Gulf states,” he told the newspaper l’Opinion. “And this issue was already at the heart of the visit by Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE president, when he came to Paris on July 18.”