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Macron defies rights criticism to host Saudi strongman

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday was to host Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris, defying criticism the invitation is deeply inappropriate barely four years after the murder by Saudi agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron addresses the audience during his visit the Seme City: an International City of Innovation and Knowledge, in Cotonou on July 27, 2022, as part of his official visit in Benin. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday was to host Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris, defying criticism the invitation is deeply inappropriate barely four years after the murder by Saudi agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The meeting will be seen as the latest step in the readmission of the de-facto ruler of the kingdom into the international fold after US President Joe Biden met the man universally known as MBS earlier this month.

The topics set to loom over the meeting include energy supply as concern grows over possible power shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as reining in the nuclear programme of Riyadh’s top regional foe Iran.

MBS — who is portrayed at home as a champion of social and economic reform but seen by critics as a murderous tyrant — arrives in France fresh from a trip to Greece to discuss energy ties.

“I feel profoundly troubled by the visit, because of what it means for our world and what is means for Jamal (Khashoggi) and people like him,” Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told AFP, describing MBS as a man who “does not tolerate any dissent”.

The visits mark MBS’ first trip to the EU since the murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018, a crime that a UN probe described as an “extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible”.

MBS’ “reintegration into international relations cannot take place at the expense of truth and justice”, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.

US intelligence agencies determined that MBS had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, although Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.

‘Double standards’
The killing drew outrage not just over the elimination of a prominent critic of the Saudi regime, but also for the manner in which it was carried out. Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate on October 2, 2018, strangled and dismembered, reportedly with a bonesaw.

“The visit by MBS to France and Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia do not change the fact that MBS is anything other than a killer,” said Callamard, who at the time was the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and led the independent probe.

His reception by world leaders is “all the more shocking given many of them at the time expressed disgust (over the killing) and a commitment not to bring MBS back into the international community”, she added, denouncing the “double standards”.

MBS had in June also met in Turkey with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after the Istanbul murder had bitterly criticised Saudi Arabia and vowed no let-up in finding justice for the Washington Post columnist.

RSF meanwhile said at least 27 journalists remain imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and while prominent blogger Raif Badawi was released in March, he is unable to leave the country and join his family abroad.

But despite the concern over Saudi Arabia’s rights record, the kingdom is seen by many in the West as an essential partner due to its energy resources, purchases of weaponry and staunch opposition to Iran’s theocratic regime.

‘Political leverage’
The French president had already travelled to the kingdom in December 2021 for talks with MBS, a visit that raised some eyebrows at the time.

MBS is in charge of the country’s day-to-day business due to the ailing condition of his father, King Salman.

Macron will be meeting MBS fresh from talks last week in Paris with two close allies of the kingdom, UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. The red carpet welcome for both leaders dismayed activists.

After the recent fist-bump greeting from Biden that for many symbolised the West’s re-acceptance of MBS, there will be huge interest in the body language between Macron and Prince Mohammed.

The talks are set to get underway late in the day, at 8:30 pm (1830 GMT), and include a working dinner at the Elysee Palace. MBS arrived late on Wednesday at a Paris airport and stayed overnight at a private residence outside the city, according to a source who asked not to be named.

“The war in Ukraine has put the energy-producing countries back in the spotlight, and they are taking advantage of it,” said Camille Lons, research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

“This gives them political leverage that they will use to reassert their importance on the international stage,” she added.