The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been back on the international stage as if nothing had happened. His alleged responsibility for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi no longer seems relevant to his presence on the international stage. His country is simply too rich and too important to ignore, according to the thoughts in Western capitals, where Saudi Arabia’s turn to China is also being observed with concern.
The isolation was never complete, however, and in recent years Western leaders have sought rapprochement again. The energy crisis since the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have finally rehabilitated King Salman’s son as a reliable partner. Twelve days before the reception in Paris, American President Joe Biden had overcome his reservations and paid his respects to the Crown Prince in Riyadh. The Kingdom is and will remain an indispensable partner as an oil supplier. For MBS, as he is often called, France remains at the center of his European ambitions. After a short working lunch with President Emmanuel Macron last July, at the time there were still loud protests from human rights activists, he returned to Paris last month. The most important man in the Gulf Kingdom stayed in the French capital for more than a week.
That should also have been the main motive for Macron to roll out the red carpet for the controversial crown prince. In front of the Élysée Palace, he greeted his guest for the cameras with a long handshake. This had a symbolic statement: Despite his alleged responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi and the devastating war in Yemen, Mohammed bin Salman is socially acceptable for Paris and a business partner like any other.
French President Emmanuel Macron returned early from his trip to Africa from Guinea-Bissau to receive the Saudi Crown Prince at the Élysée Palace. The meeting was scheduled at very short notice and was only officially confirmed when the Crown Prince was already on the first stop of his European tour in Athens. The visit is controversial. After the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the crown prince was considered persona non grata in the West for years. Macron first received the crown prince for dinner at the Élysée Palace. The left-wing opposition and human rights organizations were appalled and commemorated the murder of Khashoggi.
The topics of the talks between the crown prince of the desert state and French President Emanuel Macron were summarized as follows by the Élysée Palace: bilateral relations, the situation in the Middle East, “major international issues”, in particular the war in Ukraine, and the financial summit , to which Macron invited heads of government from many countries. MBS also took part in the air show in Le Bourget, where he observed the first flight of a machine from his new national airline, Riyadh Air, and also placed a number of orders with Airbus.
However, the actual goal of his trip to Paris looked very different: he wanted to meet as many state leaders as possible in Paris, accompanied by several ministers, in order to promote the awarding of the World Exhibition 2030 to his country. 2030 is about the time frame within which he wants to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-fixated country into a pioneer in the ecological conversion of the industrialized countries. MBS took the promotional tour so seriously that he didn’t reside in his Louveciennes palace on the outskirts of Paris, but right in the center of the capital.
The French government sees it as its duty to maintain good relations with the desert state. These are “changeable,” “Le Figaro” quotes a French diplomat as saying. In Paris, it is regretted that France is no longer the privileged substitute partner after the US, whose relationship with Saudi Arabia is only slowly improving again. China seems to be taking on this role more and more. The tenth Arab-Chinese economic summit has just ended in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The meeting is celebrated in the Saudi media as a “mega event” at which around 3,500 decision-makers from business and politics from more than 26 countries came together – including the largest delegation from China of all time, as reported by Reuters.
Saudi Arabia and China announced investment deals worth $10 billion. According to the state news agency SPA, 30 agreements have been signed, including in the areas of technology, renewable energy, agriculture, real estate, mining, tourism and healthcare. The summit is just another sign of the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, coming so shortly after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the UK. The proximity of Saudi Arabia to Russia and the détente between Riyadh and Tehran, for which China is said to have served as an alleged mediator, are also viewed critically in Paris.
It is all the more important for Macron that there are still bilateral projects between France and Saudi Arabia, for example in the field of culture: in April 2018 he agreed on a million deal with the Saudis. The oasis city of Al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia is said to attract between 1.5 and 2.5 million tourists a year – following the example of the Emirates. Abu Dhabi bought the Louvre name for around 700 million euros for a period of 30 years. Star architect Jean Nouvel is now building a luxury resort in the Saudi desert, which should be completed by the end of the year.
Before the crown prince was received in the Élysée, two human rights organizations filed a complaint against the Saudi guest for “aiding in torture and kidnapping”. The US organization “Democracy for the Arab World Now” (Dawn), which was founded on an initiative by Khashoggi, and “Trial International” from Switzerland called on the French judiciary to bring charges against the crown prince under the principle of universal jurisdiction. They argued that the Saudi crown prince could not claim immunity as he was not a head of state. There is also a need for action, since the trial in Türkiye on the murder case had been discontinued and the trial against the perpetrators in Saudi Arabia was only a farce. The complaint had no immediate consequences for the meeting in the Élysée. If a court declares itself responsible for the investigation and prosecution, it could become more complicated for MBS to visit Macron in Paris in the future.
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