French President Emmanuel Macron met with Saudi Arabia‘s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday. Macron landed in Jeddah for the final leg of a two-day Gulf tour during which he visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. The two leaders are expected to discuss concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the multiple crises in Lebanon and the ongoing war in Yemen. The first one-on-one public meeting of a major western leader with the Saudi crown prince since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 drew criticism from human rights groups.
A report released by US intelligence agencies in February said Khashoggi’s murder had been approved by Salman. In a statement, Human Rights Watch said: “Macron should address the atrocious 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Remaining silent on these matters would be tantamount to turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations.”
Macron’s office defended the meeting, calling Saudi Arabia “a major actor in the region,” and said France would have a “demanding dialogue” with the kingdom.
The Élysée Palace said the meeting in Jeddah was not in any way intended to get the crown prince “back in the saddle.”
Earlier in the day, Macron told reporters in Qatar that France and a number of European nations were considering opening a joint diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. He praised the Gulf state’s role in assisting with evacuation efforts of European citizens out of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover mid-August.
He said France and other EU countries are thinking about “having a common site to several European countries where our ambassadors or chargés d’affaires can be present” in Afghanistan, a move he stressed would not signal political recognition or dialogue with the Taliban.
During Macron’s visit to the UAE on Friday, France announced the UAE is buying 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes in a deal worth 16 billion euros ($18 billion) and represents the largest-ever French weapons contract for export.
News of Macron’s meeting with Salman coincided with the Biden administration’s latest outreach to Saudi Arabia.
In a statement, the national security council revealed that three senior US officials had travelled to the UAE, Saudi and Qatar to discuss economic issues and areas where the US could “partner to invest in the clean energy future and find ways to further collaborate to build a 21st-century clean energy architecture.”
(With AP inputs)