Khashoggi's shadow hangs over Macron's visit to Saudi Arabia

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) meets Crown Prince and Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud (R) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on December 04, 2021
5 min read
14 December, 2021
Analysis: Despite the moral costs of rehabilitating the crown prince's image, France's president will probably not be the last Western head of state to meet MBS in Saudi Arabia.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar this month.

Various human rights organisations condemned his trip and the deals which he signed. These groups see his foreign policy agenda as too driven by the interests of France’s defence sector while lacking sufficient concern for human rights.

“France's arms sales to and protection of dubious military partnerships in the name of counterterrorism and at the cost of human rights will remain a stain on Macron's diplomatic record,” stated Human Rights Watch.

Macron has fired back at such criticism: “What’s good for French women and men, I will ardently defend.”  

Being one of the first Western heads of state to visit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia since the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Macron’s visit was significant.

"Macron's visit will give the impression that the reputational risks are receding and that it is now publicly acceptable to publicly associate, albeit within limits, with the notorious Crown Prince"

As Dr Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, told The New Arab, “MBS is eager to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the West”.

Macron’s recent visit to the Saudi crown prince could be described as a watershed moment for MBS as he attempts to overcome the damage which the Khashoggi murder did to his reputation in the West.

“It is important to stress that many European capitals are eager to woo Riyadh for investments and also to take advantage of opportunities in the kingdom but have preferred to wait for the publicity surrounding the case of Khashoggi to recede before moving publicly,” said Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, in an interview with TNA.

“Macron's visit will give the impression that the reputational risks are receding and that it is now publicly acceptable to publicly associate, albeit within limits, with the notorious Crown Prince.”

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By recently meeting with MBS in Jeddah, Macron is likely positioning his country to gain some advantages in the oil-rich kingdom. Perhaps this is all part of a grander rivalry between Western powers in which France competes with its Anglo allies for international influence.

It is no secret that there has been tension between the Saudi leadership and the current US administration. So, Paris might be seizing an opportunity to strategically wedge itself between the White House and MBS.

Despite being criticised for whitewashing Khashoggi’s killing and contributing to the rehabilitation of the crown prince’s image, Macron views Saudi Arabia as a critical partner in the fight against terrorism and an anchor of stability in the Middle East.

These weapons sales also create high-paying jobs in France, which no populist leader easily turns down. Although Macron said that his visit to Saudi Arabia “doesn’t mean I condone, doesn’t mean I forgot”, the French president doesn’t think that the murder of a journalist in a Saudi consulate, which MBS ordered according to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, is reason to avoid meeting the crown prince in his country.

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MBS is eager to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the West. [Getty]

A brief and false sense of relief for human rights groups

An interesting twist to Macron’s visit was an individual’s arrest in France several days later. Concluding that there was a case of misidentification, French authorities released the man whom they had detained at the Charles de Gaulle airport on 7 December.

At first, they thought that they had arrested Khaled al-Otaibi, one of the 15 members of the Saudi team which killed Khashoggi in Istanbul. The Turks had issued an international arrest warrant for Otaibi, while Reporters Without Borders has also taken legal action against him.

“Had a matter against him gone to trial, it would invite questioning by the prosecutor about who Otaibi's accomplices were, who he took orders from, who orchestrated the plan to kill Khashoggi, and other inquiries that would probe MBS's role in events in a way that might be legally damning to MBS and certainly politically embarrassing to those who seek to rehabilitate his image,” Gissou Nia, Director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Litigation Project, told TNA.

“While this arrest did not lead to the apprehension of the intended target, the question remains on what actions will be taken by authorities in different jurisdictions should MBS visit countries in which criminal complaints targeting him have been filed, including Germany.”

"I think Europeans and Americans will try post-Khashoggi to stay away from him [MBS] as much as possible. But there will come a time in which that's no longer possible"

Washington won't shun MBS forever

Despite the moral costs of rehabilitating the crown prince’s image, France’s president will probably not be the last Western head of state to meet MBS in Saudi Arabia.

The crown prince could be the Saudi king for many decades. Statesmen realise there is a need to, at least eventually, deal with MBS pragmatically.

There is “a gradual Western accommodation of the fact that he is almost certain to be the next Saudi monarch” which puts Western governments into a delicate process of “re-engagement and a degree, possibly, of parsing the balance between moral outrage and reasons of state,” Dr Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told TNA.

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While France has evidently moved on, the US and other Western countries aren’t so far in that direction, at least as of now. At this point, with King Salman still on the throne, there are still ways for Biden and other Western leaders to avoid meeting with MBS.

“Biden can meet the King,” Dr Andreas Krieg, an Assistant Professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, told TNA. “He doesn’t need to meet the Crown Prince.”

But the picture will be different after King Salman ceases to rule. “If [MBS] gets crowned the King, I do imagine more western countries will inevitably have to welcome him or at least engage him one way or the other,” said Dr Krieg.

“But I think it’s a gradual approach. I think Europeans and Americans will try post-Khashoggi to stay away from him as much as possible. But there will come a time in which that’s no longer possible. You can’t bypass him by meeting the King because he will be the King.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero