French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up his tour of the Gulf after a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in Jeddah.
The meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday, after Macron’s meeting with the Qatari emir, was to discuss regional stability, in particular crisis-hit Lebanon, after insisting he has not ignored Riyadh’s rights record.
Macron landed in Jeddah after visits to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as part of a short Gulf tour.
Macron becomes one of the first Western leaders to meet with Prince Mohammed in the kingdom since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The killing by Saudi agents severely tarnished Prince Mohammed’s international image and drew widespread condemnation.
But Macron said dialogue with Saudi Arabia was necessary to “work for stability in the region”. However, he added, in a reference to the Khashoggi murder, that “it doesn’t mean that I endorse anything”.
“I note that Saudi Arabia had organised the G20 summit… not many powers boycotted the G20” despite the Khashoggi affair, said Macron.
“We have always been clear on the issue of human rights or this case.”
Riyadh has described the murder as a “rogue” operation, but both the US Central Intelligence Agency and a United Nations special rapporteur have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing, a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
Mending ties with Lebanon
During his discussions with Prince Mohammed, Macron was expected to plead the case of Lebanon, where an economic crisis has been exasperated by a diplomatic dispute sparked in October between Beirut and some Gulf states – in particular Saudi Arabia which had blocked imports.
His efforts are likely to receive a boost by the resignation of Lebanese Information Minister Georges Kordahi whose remarks on the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s war sparked the dispute.
In October, videos of an interview Kordahi had given a month before his appointment began surfacing online, in which he said the Iran-aligned Houthis are “defending themselves … against an external aggression” in Yemen.
He also said the long-running conflict was “futile” and called for it to end.
Lebanon’s fragile government has been struggling to secure international aid, particularly from wealthy Arab powers.
‘Human rights abuses’
On Friday, the UAE signed a record 14 billion euros ($15.8bn) contract for 80 French Rafale warplanes and committed billions of euros in other deals during Macron’s stopover.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the sale, saying the UAE played “a prominent role in the Saudi and UAE-led coalition’s atrocity-ridden military operations in Yemen”.
Last year, Riyadh was the largest buyer of French weapons, HRW added.
“He [Macron] should be speaking out against human rights abuses,” HRW said in a statement on Thursday ahead of the Gulf tour.
“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,” the group said.
Both Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels and coalition-supported forces have been accused of failing to protect civilians during Yemen’s seven-year war.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to support Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The UAE remains part of the alliance but started a drawdown of troops in 2019.