DOHA (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron held face-to-face talks in Saudi Arabia on Saturday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becoming the first major Western leader to visit the kingdom since journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder.
Macron considers Saudi Arabia vital to help forge a region-wide peace deal with Iran, as well as an ally in the fight against Islamist militants from the Middle East to West Africa, and a rampart against the Muslim Brotherhood.
France is one of Saudi Arabia’s main arms suppliers, but it has faced increasing pressure to review its sales because of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, now one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
While ties between Paris and Riyadh were warmer under Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, France has not reaped the business rewards.
The relationship has cooled in recent years despite Macron, prior to Khashoggi’s murder, having urged detractors to give time to the then 33-year-old leader-in-waiting.
On arriving in the coastal Red Sea city of Jeddah, Macron exchanged a warm handshake with bin Salman.
Both smiled before heading into talks that included the Iran nuclear file and Lebanon, on which Macron said he had been given a commitment by bin Salman to re-engage to find a solution to the crisis despite it being wary of Iran-backed Hezbollah’s heft.
Macron on Friday had rejected accusations that he was legitimising the crown prince, adding that the region’s multiple crises could not be dealt with by ignoring the kingdom.
“We talked about absolutely everything, without any taboos and we were obviously able to bring up the question of human rights,” Macron told reporters after meeting bin Salman.
“It was a direct exchange, I hope, effective. I still have the same approach of trying to preserve that channel with leaders to get tangible results.”
Recent contracts have been few, with most centred on the Al-Ula tourism project that aims to bring to life the kingdom’s Nabatean history, part of Saudi Arabia’s diversification drive to wean its economy off oil revenues.
Macron’s visit comes at a time when Gulf Arab states have voiced uncertainty about the U.S. focus on the region even as they seek more weapons from Washington.
Saudi Arabia has been frustrated by the approach of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has pressed Riyadh over its human rights record and the Yemen war and released intelligence linking bin Salman to Khashoggi’s murder.
The crown prince has denied any involvement in the killing of the journalist in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate, an incident that sparked global outrage and tainted Prince Mohammed’s image.
“Whether it’s the objective or not, (this trip) contributes to a policy of rehabilitating the Saudi prince,” said Agnes Callamard, secretary general of the rights group Amnesty International. “It pains me that France, the country of human rights, is the instrument of this policy.”
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, Will Dunham and Helen Popper)