PARIS - Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman engaged in a long handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace on Thursday, in the latest sign of the crown prince’s rehabilitation nearly four years after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mohammed’s trip to France, where he was attending a working dinner with Macron, followed a stop in Greece this week to sign a flurry of bilateral agreements.
He also met this month in Riyadh with President Biden, who as a candidate had pledged to make the prince a pariah. And he made a state visit in June to Turkey, which once led the charge to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the killing of Khashoggi - a Saudi citizen, Washington Post opinion columnist and critic of the crown prince - who was dismembered in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
These high-level encounters with Mohammed would have been hard to imagine not long ago. But the war in Ukraine and a downturn in the global economy have reaffirmed the Saudi kingdom’s status as a critical source of global energy and investment and brought world leaders pleading for assistance, including an increase oil production. Macron, Biden and some other Western leaders have also argued there is no way to address global crises, such as the war in Yemen, without the help of the crown prince, who could rule Saudi Arabia for decades.
Mohamed’s reception in the halls of the French Élysée presidential palace on Thursday night promised to mark another breakthrough in his bid for re-acceptance on the international stage. “This is a game changer on a symbolic level,” said Sebastian Sons, a Saudi Arabia researcher with the CARPO think tank. “He thinks he can now build on the European needs in terms of energy - and this is exactly the narrative he sells at the moment.”
The diplomatic forays by the crown prince have come despite continued pressure from human rights groups to hold him accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. Biden’s meeting with the crown prince was called a “betrayal” by human rights groups and Saudi dissidents. And hours before Macron and Mohammed were set to meet, a group founded by Khashoggi said it had filed a criminal complaint in France against Mohammed that called him an “accomplice” in the journalist’s torture and disappearance.
“As a party to the U.N. Conventions against Torture and Enforced Disappearances, France is obliged to investigate a suspect such as Bin Salman if he is present on French territory,” said a statement from the group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, which filed the legal action along with two other organizations, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Trial International.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the murder was ordered by the crown prince. Mohamed has denied any advance knowledge of the killing, or ordering it. Saudi Arabia has blamed Khashoggi’s death on rogue state operatives.
This week’s trip marks Mohammed’s first Western European tour since the killing.
In Greece, officials heaped praise on the crown prince. “We honor and admire his leadership, his vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the way the Kingdom is progressing,” development minister Adonis Georgiadis told Arab News.
Mohammed sought to portray his country as more than just a global oil spigot, but also as a green role model. He unveiled new details of his vision for “Neom,” a futuristic desert city consisting of high-rises more than 100 miles long. Greece and Saudi Arabia also signed a deal to deepen cooperation on renewable energies and hydrogen production.
“I think this is exactly what Saudi Arabia wants to be perceived as: Not only as an oil supplier, but also as a partner in terms of renewable energy,” said Sons, adding that a bigger focus on Saudi Arabia’s green energy plans could boost the crown prince’s personal image, too.
In France, officials said the two leaders would discuss Europe’s energy needs, among other issues, and that Macron planned to raise human rights concerns with the crown prince.
Human rights groups and French opposition members voiced outrage over the meeting.
“On the dinner menu of Emmanuel Macron and MBS: the dismembered body of the journalist Khashoggi? Climate chaos? Peace and human rights?,” French Green party politician Yannick Jadot wrote on Twitter, using Mohamed’s initials. “No! Oil and weapons! The exact opposite of what should be done!,” he added.
Macron’s critics have been particularly dismayed by continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia - one of France’s biggest buyers - even after other nations curbed weapons sales to the kingdom or stopped exports entirely.
Macron and Mohammed have met several times since the Khashoggi killing, including last December, when the French president became the first major Western leader to visit the pariah prince in Saudi Arabia.
Macron’s allies defended his interactions with the crown prince, and said the growing perception of Saudi Arabia as a potential partner is needed. “Talking to all the Gulf countries to me seems to be an absolute necessity,” Aurore Bergé, the leader of Macron’s parliamentary group, told France’s public broadcaster.
“The rehabilitation of the murderous prince will be justified in France as in the United States by arguments of realpolitik,” Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard tweeted. “Against soaring oil prices, record inflation, results of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - what can our human rights arguments do?”
But, she continued, each time “values are cheated by those who claim to be their guarantors, we get closer to the abyss.”
Although human rights groups did not expect French authorities to take action on the complaint filed Thursday, “we are looking at the long term here,” Henri Thulliez, a French lawyer who represents DAWN and the other groups, said in an interview.
The complaint “could pave the way for a lengthy criminal investigation, which would be run by an investigative judge of the Paris courts,” he said.
The complaint contends that Mohamed “does not have immunity from prosecution because as crown prince he is not the head of state.” The Élysée, in a briefing for reporters Thursday, said the leaders on official visits to the country enjoy immunity, but did not weigh in on the merits of the complaint.
The crown prince is also named as a defendant in lawsuits filed in the United States, including one filed two years ago by DAWN and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee. In that case, a judge has asked the Biden administration to say whether it believes the crown prince should enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Mohammed’s lawyers have argued that in the U.S., the crown prince enjoys sovereign immunity in civil claims. Mohammed’s father, King Salman, is Saudi Arabia’s sovereign, though the crown prince is widely regarded as the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
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The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim reported from Istanbul. Elinda Labropoulou in Athens contributed to this report.
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