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Saudi crown prince flies to Europe for first time since Khashoggi murder

Mohammed bin Salman will meet leaders of France and Greece to discuss deepening bilateral ties, as diplomatic fallout over brutal killing fades

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Elysee Presidential palace for a meeting on April 10, 2018 in Paris. (AFP Photo/Ludovic Marin)
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Elysee Presidential palace for a meeting on April 10, 2018 in Paris. (AFP Photo/Ludovic Marin)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was set to embark on a visit to Greece and France on Tuesday, state media reported, his first Europe trip since the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018 brought the powerful crown prince international condemnation.

Prince Mohammed will meet with the leaders of both France and Greece “to discuss bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in various fields,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a statement from the royal court.

The trip comes less than two weeks after US President Joe Biden visited the Saudi city of Jeddah for a summit of Arab leaders and met one-on-one with Prince Mohammed, greeting him with a fist bump.

That move sealed Biden’s retreat from a presidential election campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over the Khashoggi affair and wider human rights controversies.

US intelligence agencies determined that Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, though Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.

Mohammed bin Salman, left, and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Orwell Productions)

Prince Mohammed’s stay in Europe represents a “highly symbolic move past his post-Khashoggi isolation,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.

“While there has not been any formal coordination of policy in the ‘West’ against Mohammed bin Salman since 2018, the fact is that he has not visited any European or North American country since Khashoggi’s killing,” Ulrichsen said.

Prince Mohammed has also received a recent boost from Turkish President Erdogan, who visited Saudi Arabia in April, then welcomed Prince Mohammed in Ankara in June.

Erdogan had enraged the Saudis by vigorously pursuing the Khashoggi case, opening an investigation, and briefing international media about the lurid details of the killing.

But with ties on the mend, an Istanbul court halted the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects linked to Khashoggi’s death, transferring the case to Riyadh in April.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shake hands during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Oil focus

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a spike in energy prices earlier this year, Saudi Arabia came under pressure from the United States and European powers to pump more oil.

Elevated oil prices have been a key factor in inflation in the US soaring to 40-year highs, putting pressure on the Biden administration ahead of mid-term elections later this year.

But the world’s biggest crude exporter has resisted pressure to open the supply taps, citing its commitment to production schedules determined by the OPEC+ exporting bloc it co-leads with Russia.

In May, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated that the kingdom had done what it could for the oil market.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron received the new president of the energy-rich United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in Paris.

During that trip, officials announced a deal between French energy giant Total Energies and UAE state oil company ADNOC “for cooperation in the area of energy supplies.”

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