French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday hosts Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris, seeking to nudge the de-facto leader of the oil-rich kingdom into more full-throated support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
The visit of the 37-year-old, widely known as “MBS”, comes less than a year after his last visit to the Elysee Palace and underlines the warm relationship between Paris and Riyadh that has irked rights activists in the wake of the 2018 killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Over their lunch at the Elysee Palace from 1115 GMT, Macron is also expected to seek support from MBS to find a solution in the search for a new president in Lebanon, a stalemate that is causing increasing exasperation for France.
His stay in France appears set to be a long one, with the crown prince due to attend a Paris summit on a New Global Financing Pact hosted by Macron on June 22-23.
On Monday, he will also attend an official Saudi reception for Riyadh’s candidacy to host Expo 2030, a bid for which Saudi wants strong French support.
The prince can reside comfortably in France, given he owns the opulent Chateau Louis XIV near Versailles outside Paris, a modern building that seeks to replicate the look of French imperial palaces.
A French presidential official, who asked not to be named, said Paris wanted MBS to understand the scale of the Ukraine conflict and “help us speed up the final outcome of the war, which means a victory for Ukraine on the ground”.
“We are going to tell him how important the Ukraine issue is and how Saudi Arabia can exert influence, including on Russia,” added the official.
– Cautious on Ukraine –
Saudi Arabia has maintained a cautious stance throughout the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, stopping short of condemning the assault while emphasizing the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
MBS hosted President Volodymyr Zelensky last month in Jeddah during an Arab League summit, the Ukrainian leader’s first visit to the Middle East since the invasion began, and won his praise for supporting Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”.
But Saudi also retains close ties to Russia, particularly through Moscow’s involvement in the expanded OPEC+ format of the oil cartel that includes 10 non-OPEC members.
Macron is also likely to encourage MBS to use Saudi Arabia’s influence among the Sunni community in Lebanon to break the deadlock that has seen the country repeatedly fail to choose a new president.
The French leader last month named his former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as his personal envoy for Lebanon in a new bid to end the political crisis. The veteran politician is due to visit soon.
Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran are also in the throes of an unexpected rapprochement — brokered by Beijing — that has caused huge interest among Western governments still seeking to revive a 2015 deal on the Iranian nuclear program.
“In Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Iran, there is potential for easing tensions in the region,” said the French official, expressing hope it could also smooth the path to an election of a Lebanese president.
– Shadow of Khashoggi killing –
But despite championing rapid economic and political reform, a shadow remains cast over the prince by the case of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The killing of Khashoggi was described by a UN probe as an “extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible”.
US intelligence agencies determined that MBS had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death. Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.
“I find it regrettable to shake the hand, acting as if nothing had happened, of a leader whose responsibility in the barbaric assassination of a journalist has been demonstrated,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, MENA communications director at Human Rights Watch.
©️ Agence France-Presse