Los Angeles Times

French leader hosts Saudi prince for dinner

Macron’s meeting draws criticism and comes as EU nations seek to lessen reliance on Russian energy.

- By Thomas Adamson and Aya Batrawy

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his presidenti­al palace Thursday for a controvers­ial dinner that marks another step in the Saudi leader’s diplomatic rehabilita­tion. The move has drawn harsh criticism in France given the gruesome Saudi killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The visit by the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto leader comes as France and other European nations are seeking to secure sources of energy to lessen their dependence on oil and gas supplies from Russia amid its war on Ukraine. France is also a major weapons and defense supplier to Persian Gulf nations.

This was the second stop — after Greece — of the crown prince’s first official visit to the European Union since Khashoggi’s death.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Macron could be counted on to raise human rights concerns with the prince while also seeking to secure energy supplies from nations other than Russia.

“Obviously, this isn’t about casting aside our principles. It’s not about calling into question our commitment in favor of human rights. The president will surely have an opportunit­y to talk about this with Mr. Mohammed bin Salman,” Borne said.

But she added: “In a context where we know that Russia is cutting, is threatenin­g to cut, and is again cutting gas supplies and where we have tensions over energy prices, I think the French would not understand if we didn’t talk to the countries that are the exact producers of energy.”

Russian energy corporatio­n Gazprom on Wednesday cut the amount of natural gas flowing through a major pipeline from Russia to Europe to 20% of capacity, blaming technical problems. Germany, however, called it a deliberate move to sow uncertaint­y and push up prices amid the war in Ukraine.

European nations are rushing to bolster gas storage levels for winter amid fears that Russia could completely cut off gas exports — which are used for industry and to generate electricit­y and heat homes — to try to gain political leverage over the bloc.

Hours before the leaders’ meeting, the crown prince was targeted in a legal complaint filed Thursday in a Paris court by a human rights group that alleged his complicity in Khashoggi’s killing.

A Washington-based group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, called on French authoritie­s to open a criminal investigat­ion into the crown prince’s role. The group said it filed a complaint arguing that the prince was an accomplice to the torture of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and his disappeara­nce.

It said two other rights groups backed its call for a French investigat­ion and argued that the prince should not have immunity from prosecutio­n because he is not the Saudi head of state.

The Paris prosecutor­s’ office said it had no informatio­n about the complaint.

Other rights groups are speaking up too.

“By meeting with the crown prince on French soil, while Saudi dissidents remain wrongfully detained, trapped in the country through travel bans and targeted abroad, President Macron risks contributi­ng to the dangerous normalizat­ion of a brutal man,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Macron’s dinner capped a long day for the French leader: He was in GuineaBiss­au, wrapping up a threenatio­n, four-day tour of Africa, Thursday morning.

The Elysee Palace said the war in Ukraine will be high on the working dinner’s agenda and added that Macron would address “human rights,” without elaboratin­g. A press spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practice, said that “we have constantly said that the facts [of the killing] should be establishe­d.”

The crown prince has been steadily attracting bigname investors back to the kingdom since Khashoggi’s killing. He has also reset Saudi relations with Turkey.

Western intelligen­ce determined that Mohammed was complicit in the killing. The journalist’s body was dismembere­d with a bone saw, according to Turkish officials. The crown prince lost supporters in the West who previously had been cheering his social reforms at home. He maintains he had no knowledge of the operation, despite it being carried out by people who directly reported to him.

Macron was one of the highest-profile world leaders to meet the prince shortly after the killing, at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina in 2018.

Adamson and Batrawy write for the Associated Press and reported from Paris and Dubai, respective­ly. AP writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, contribute­d to this report.

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