When Macron Met MbS
The French president is the first Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the Khashoggi affair. To the dismay of human rights activists, he indicated that Riyadh cannot be sidelined
Everybody sells arms to Riyadh
He still hasn’t been invited to Washington and he hasn’t had an opportunity to speak with the American President Joe Biden, who prefers to communicate with his father, King Salman. But there is no doubt that this 36-year-old crown prince is the power, in the kingdom and in the region, despite the current row with the Western world.
Three years after the scandalous affair of Jamal Khashoggi’s horrendous murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted the French President Emmanuel Macron in his palace in Jeddah, far from the infamous Riyadh Ritz-Carlton where hundreds of princes and other VIPs were allegedly interrogated and tortured in MbS’s anti-corruption campaign in 2017.
The crown prince has denied any involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, but this didn’t help MbS to distance himself from the affair that tainted his image of a reformist prince who was about to break away from suffocating religious norms and promote further modernization of Saudi Arabia. The Western fascination with the young Saudi leader had dimmed, as more evidence of human rights violations in the country piled up.
During the US presidential debates in 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” and called it a “brutal dictatorship.”
However, when he became president, Biden temporarily froze the weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, but he didn’t stop them. In 2020, Canada resumed its weapon sales to Riyadh and then even doubled them, despite the previous decision to stop the sales in protest against the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And, in the beginning of 2020, Germany approved €1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following a reduction in 2019.
So, while the leaders of these countries were hesitant to meet the crown prince in their capitals or in the kingdom, business continued pretty much as usual.
French pivot to Saudi
So why did Emmanuel Macron break the Western taboo and travel to Jeddah? While it’s well known that France is a key weapon producer that also sells arms to Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that this time it was Paris’ geopolitical interests in the Middle East and in Africa that were on the table, rather than just weapon deals. Paris wants Riyadh to reengage again with Lebanon, and it also needs Saudi Arabia in the Sahel region, where France is fighting against radical Islamist organizations in Mali and other countries.
“The history of French and Saudi relations predates the roles of both Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent years,” Irina Tsukerman, a human rights lawyer and director of the Scarab Rising consultancy firm, told The Media Line.
“It was France that played a key security role in assisting the Saudi monarchy following the events of 1979 which involved the takeover of the Grand Mosque in the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] by extremists. Indeed, the French special forces had been some of the traditional allies for the Saudis in matters involving sensitive security operations,” Tsukerman added.
“Since then, France and the KSA continued to maintain strong relations in the fields of energy and defense trade, but in recent years they have also cooperated on other issues, such as the mining sector. Still, the KSA has been traditionally viewed as closer to the Anglo-speaking countries such as the UK and the US,” she continued.
“France’s active re-engagement with the KSA as the US is appearing to exit the region over the course of the past two administrations may mean that the KSA is forced to consider other Western security partners with a more active political and military role in MENA,” Tsukerman said.
Daniel Shek, a former ambassador of Israel to France, says Macron knew well what he was doing.
“In French foreign policy, they treat human rights as nuance and not as a barrier. So he probably was prepared for the fury – in the legislature and in the press − but he expected that it would not be too strong. Macron always travels with a delegation of businessmen to promote France’s commercial interests, but during this meeting, he also focused on Lebanon, a traditional sphere of French interests, and reengagement of Saudi Arabia in order to solve the Lebanese crisis,” Shek told The Media Line.
This year France increasingly felt sidelined by the US and its Anglo allies when the AUKUS security pact was announced in September by the US, UK and Australia. Increasing engagement with a strong Middle Eastern leader who is currently ignored by the US is considered by some in France as a move toward regaining independence and international stature.
The human rights activists in France and other Western countries were not convinced.
“Whatever strategic interest France has in Saudi Arabia, nothing can justify their legitimization of a ruler who kills journalists, threatens activists, imprisons women human rights defenders, slaughters Yemeni civilians, and deceives the international community. Macron diminishes himself and his own country as he stoops to partnership with MbS,” said Agnès Callamard, a French woman who serves as Amnesty International’s secretary general.
Tsukerman argues that boycotting and ignoring the Saudi leadership will not promote the cause of human rights, but rather the contrary.
“Anyone dedicated to human rights and reforms would encourage Macron’s engagement with a young leader because common sense and past history would indicate that a more open engagement with high-level Western relationships makes friendly, positive influence in a personal and private context of a country known for valuing its public image much more likely than public diatribes and humiliation of its leadership,” she said.
“Furthermore, those who cared about moving the KSA in a positive direction would encourage France’s involvement as a way to provide opportunities for the 70% of its young population [under 25], who overwhelmingly support MbS and have been open to Western influences,” Tsukerman said.