Energy on the table, Macron hosts Saudi prince for dinner

Thomas Adamson and Aya Batrawy
Associated Press

Paris – French President Emmanuel Macron is welcoming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his presidential palace Thursday and offering him dinner in controversial talks that mark another step in the Saudi leader’s diplomatic rehabilitation – a move that has drawn harsh criticism in France after the gruesome Saudi killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The visit from the prince of the oil-rich state comes after France and other European nations are seeking to secure sources of energy to lessen their dependence on oil and gas supplies from Russia amid its war on Ukraine. France is also a major weapons and defense supplier to Gulf nations.

In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021.

This was the second stop – after Greece – of the crown prince’s first official visit to the European Union since Khashoggi’s death.

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said Macron could be counted on to raise human rights concerns with the prince, while also seeking to secure supplies of energy from elsewhere than Russia.

“Obviously, this isn’t about casting aside our principles. It’s not about calling into question our commitment in favor of human rights. The president will surely have an opportunity to talk about this with Mr. Mohammed bin Salman,” Borne said.

But she added: “In a context where we know that Russia is cutting, is threatening to cut, and is again cutting gas supplies and where we have tensions over energy prices, I think the French would not understand if we didn’t talk to the countries that are precisely producers of energy.”

Russia’s Gazprom on Wednesday halved the amount of natural gas flowing through a major pipeline from Russia to Europe to 20% of capacity, blaming technical problems. Germany, however, called it a deliberate move to sow uncertainty and push up prices amid the war in Ukraine. European nations are rushing to bolster gas storage levels for winter amid fears that Russia could completely cut off gas exports – which are used for industry and to generate electricity and heat homes – to try to gain political leverage over the bloc.

Hours before the leaders’ meeting, the crown prince was targeted in a legal complaint filed Thursday in a Paris court by a human rights group that alleged his complicity in Khashoggi’s killing.

The Washington-based group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, called on French authorities to open a criminal investigation into the crown prince. The group said it filed a 42-page complaint arguing that the prince was an accomplice to the torture of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018 and his disappearance.

DAWN focuses on human rights violations in Gulf Arab autocracies, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It said two other rights groups backed its call for a French investigation and argued that the prince should not have immunity from prosecution because he is not the Saudi head of state.

“As a party to the U.N. Conventions against torture and enforced disappearances, France is obliged to investigate a suspect such as Bin Salman if he is present on French territory,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN’s executive director.

The Paris court didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions about the complaint.

Macron’s dinner will cap a long day for the French leader: He was in Guinea-Bissau, wrapping up a three-nation tour of Africa, on Thursday morning.

The crown prince has been steadily attracting big-name investors back to the kingdom since Khashoggi’s killing. He has also reset Saudi relations with Turkey, a key step toward rehabilitating his international standing.

Western intelligence determined that Prince Mohammed was complicit in the killing. The journalist’s body was dismembered with a bone saw, according to Turkish officials. The prince lost appalled supporters in the West who had previously been cheering his social reforms inside the kingdom. He maintains he had no knowledge of the operation, despite it being carried out by people who directly reported to him.

Macron was one of the highest-profile world leaders to meet the prince shortly after the killing, during a tense chat caught on camera at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina in 2018. They have met several times since.

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and John Leicester contributed from Le Pecq, France.