By John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday as part of increased Western efforts to court the major oil-producing state amid the war in Ukraine and faltering talks to revive a nuclear deal with Iran.
French opposition figures and human rights groups have criticised Macron’s decision to invite to dinner at the Elysee Palace a man Western leaders believe ordered the murder in 2018 of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The visit to Paris by the de facto Saudi ruler, comes two weeks after he held talks in Saudi Arabia with U.S. President Joe Biden. The West is keen to reset relations with the Gulf Arab oil giant as it seeks to counter the rising regional influence of Iran, Russia and China.
“The rehabilitation of the murderous prince will be justified in France as in the United States by arguments of realpolitik. But it’s actually bargaining that predominates, let’s face it,” Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said on Twitter ahead of Prince Mohammed’s visit.
France and other European countries are looking to diversify their sources of energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has seen Moscow cut gas supplies to Europe. Macron wants Riyadh, the world’s largest oil exporter, to raise production.
A French presidency official told reporters Macron would bring up human rights questions, including individual cases, as well as discussing oil production and the Iran nuclear deal. [L8N2Z97WH]
France is one of Riyadh’s main arms suppliers but has faced growing pressure to review its sales because of the humanitarian crisis, the world’s worst, in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels since 2015.
Macron, who last December became the first Western leader to visit Saudi Arabia since the Khashoggi affair, has dismissed criticism of his efforts to engage the crown prince by saying the kingdom was too important to be ignored.
The killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked an international furore. U.S. intelligence concluded the crown prince had directly approved the murder of the Washington Post columnist. The crown prince denied any role in the killing.
French prosecutors are studying complaints filed against the prince over the Saudi role in the Yemen war. Rights groups Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI),and TRIAL International said on Thursday they had filed a new complaint asking French authorities to open an investigation into the prince over the torture and killing of Khashoggi.
(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Gareth Jones, Mark Heinrich and Frank Jack Daniel)
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, receives French President Emmanuel Macron in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 4, 2021. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS