JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron met Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in Jeddah Saturday to discuss regional stability, in particular crisis-hit Lebanon, after insisting he has not ignored Riyadh’s rights record.
Macron landed in the kingdom’s Red Sea city after visits to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as part of a short Gulf tour.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with Macron, who wore a face mask, welcoming him at the royal palace before talks and a lunch together.
He becomes one of the first Western leaders to meet with Prince Mohammed in the kingdom since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The killing by Saudi agents severely tarnished Prince Mohammed’s international image.
Dialogue with Saudi Arabia was necessary to “work for stability in the region”, Macron said on Friday.
However, he added in a reference to the Khashoggi murder that “it doesn’t mean that I endorse anything.”
“I note that Saudi Arabia had organized the G20 summit… not many powers boycotted the G20,” despite the Khashoggi affair, said Macron.
“We have always been clear on the issue of human rights or this case.”
Riyadh has described the murder as a “rogue” operation, but both the US Central Intelligence Agency and a United Nations special rapporteur have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
During his discussions with Prince Mohammed, Macron is expected to plead the case of Lebanon, where an economic crisis has been exasperated by a diplomatic row sparked in October between Beirut and some Gulf states — in particular Saudi Arabia which had blocked imports.
His efforts are likely to receive a boost by the resignation of Lebanese information minister Georges Kordahi whose remarks on the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s war sparked the row.
‘Role to play’
Macron on Friday welcomed Kordahi’s departure, saying he hopes to “re-engage all Gulf countries in relations with Lebanon”.
The French president has spearheaded international efforts to help Lebanon out of its worst-ever economic downturn.
The country’s fragile government has been struggling to secure international aid, particularly from wealthy Arab powers.
Kordahi said Friday his resignation, which he had initially ruled out, became inevitable earlier this week when he met Lebanon’s prime minister.
“I understood from Prime Minister Najib Mikati… that the French want my resignation before Macron’s visit to Riyadh because it could maybe help them start a dialogue with Saudi officials over Lebanon and the future of bilateral ties,” Kordahi told reporters.
Lebanon’s ties with Gulf states have also grown increasingly strained in recent years due to the growing influence of Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Macron said France had a role to play in the region.
“But how can we work for regional stability and on Lebanon and many other issues while ignoring the first Gulf state in terms of geography and size?” he said, referring to the kingdom which is the Arab world’s largest economy, and the world’s biggest crude exporter.
On Friday, the United Arab Emirates signed a record 14-billion-euro ($15.8 billion) contract for 80 French Rafale warplanes and committed billions of euros in other deals during Macron’s stopover.
Human Rights Watch criticized the sale, saying the Emirates have played “a prominent role in the Saudi and UAE-led coalition’s atrocity-ridden military operations in Yemen.”
It said Riyadh was, in 2020, the largest buyer of French weapons.
Both Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels and coalition-supported forces have been accused of failing to protect civilians during Yemen’s seven-year war.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to support Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The UAE remains part of the alliance but started a drawdown of troops in 2019.
From the UAE, Macron headed to Qatar where he thanked the emirate for its efforts to evacuate 258 vulnerable Afghans to France via Doha, following the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August.