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Macron is 'main architect' of rehabilitation of Saudi crown prince, say rights groups

Human rights groups slam France's Macron for hosting Mohammed bin Salman while 'lecturing others' about arming Russia
France's President Emmanuel Macron greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he arrives at presidential Elysee Palace in Paris on 16 June 2023.
France's President Emmanuel Macron greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he arrives at Elysee Palace in Paris, on 16 June 2023 (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a one-on-one meeting on Friday, a visit that has drawn the ire of human rights groups that are criticising Macron for "rehabilitating" the Saudi leader's international image.

Macron and Mohammed bin Salman met on Friday for a "working lunch" at the president's official residence, Elysee Palace, where the two leaders discussed bilateral relations and regional issues.

The visit comes ahead of a global financial summit taking place in France. France is also a major weapons and defence supplier to Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia.

Rights groups say that Macron's welcoming of Mohammed bin Salman, who has launched an economic pivot as well as a crackdown on civil society and rights activists, points to France's hypocrisy, as it has slammed countries for staying neutral when it comes to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Macron has been silent regarding the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, despite a call from Amnesty International urging the French president to bring up the issue of several young men in Saudi Arabia that are facing execution.

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A French official told the Associated Press that Macron planned to discuss human rights, as Paris firmly opposes the death penalty.

"Amnesty International will do everything to ask that this French president – who seems to enjoy the company of this prince – makes an effort and that he asks that these young people are never going be executed," Amnesty's secretary general Agnes Callamard told French news agency AFP.

Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), a rights group founded by Saudi dissident and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi Arabia, pointed to Macron's remarks warning other countries against arming Russia while selling $850m worth of arms to Russia in 2021.

"While President Macron is lecturing other countries about international law and scolding them for harming human rights by selling weapons to Russia, he's only been too eager to wine and dine the murderous tyrant of Saudi Arabia in a mad rush to sell him as many weapons as possible," Sarah Leah Whitson, Dawn's executive director, said in a statement.

Jean Claude Samouiller, president of Amnesty International France, noted that while Macron has openly welcomed Mohammed bin Salman to the country, French civil society remains critical of the Saudi leader.

"Civil society is highly critical of this welcome, five years after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and I'm not just talking about NGOs," Samouiller told Middle East Eye.

"Improving the kingdom's image will not require hundreds of millions of euros, but rather concrete improvements in the situation of women activists and minorities, and the abolition of the death penalty."

Emboldening rights abuses

Rights advocates and researchers say Saudi Arabia has witnessed an ongoing pattern of systematic repression since 2017, after Mohamed bin Salman became crown prince and de-facto ruler. 

Since then, waves of arrests have targeted dozens of academic and religious scholars, preachers, activists, economists, human rights workers, and women's rights activists.

"Peaceful activists like Salma al-Shehab are still being sentenced to decades in prison for simple tweets, and we have counted 196 cases of execution in 2022 in Saudi Arabia, seven times the 2020 figure," Samouiller said.

The crown prince's visit to France comes as he has sought to rehabilitate his image in the western world, several years after the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia denies the prince's involvement, but US intelligence agencies have concluded that Khashoggi’s killing likely occured with Mohammed bin Salman's knowledge.

'Macron has been the main architect of the rehabilitation of the Saudi prince since 2018'

- Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International

The killing had caused massive outrage and a rift in Saudi Arabia's relationship with western countries like the US, and while rights groups continue to call out Saudi Arabia for the killing as well as a number of other rights abuses, Washington has since sought to repair these ties.

US President Joe Biden had previously called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" but then last year, Biden made a visit to the kingdom where he met with Mohammed bin Salman.

Macron also previously hosted the crown prince last year in Paris, in a meeting rights groups similarly criticised as France reconditioning Mohammed bin Salman's image on the world stage.

Sevag Kechichian, a Gulf researcher at Dawn, told Middle East Eye that it is difficult not to see a disconnect when it comes to France's stances on human rights in other countries, given that he is welcoming the Saudi crown prince without similar criticisms made to the kingdom.

"It is impossible to avoid the perception that France's commitments and rhetoric on human rights are self-serving and hypocritical, which further emboldens dictators and perpetrators to commit more abuses," Sevag told MEE.

"There is no doubt that MBS will perceive Macron warmly welcoming him as validation that he can buy his way out of anything, including murder."

Amnesty's Callamard told AFP that "Macron has been the main architect of the rehabilitation of the Saudi prince since 2018".

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