(Bloomberg) – With a gigantic military deal already in his pocket, President Emmanuel Macron ends his Gulf tour in Saudi Arabia on Saturday where he will seek to elevate France’s position as a serious player in world affairs despite criticism on the kingdom’s human rights record.
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Macron, who faces a bitter electoral battle in April, is the first major Western leader to visit the world’s largest oil exporter and meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the country since he became involved in the brutal murder of Saudi Arabia in 2018. Columnist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Mohammed received Macron at a royal palace in Jeddah, where they shared a long handshake. Saudi media and influencers quickly released a photograph of the two men smiling and walking side by side.
The visit coincides with a weekend of festivities that will help rebuild the image of Saudi Arabia and its controversial prince on the world stage. A series of events showcase the new non-oil sectors of entertainment, sports and tourism, and Justin Bieber will perform when the kingdom hosts its first Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday.
World champion driver Lewis Hamilton said he felt “uncomfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia given his human rights record. In the newspaper Le Monde, the head of Amnesty International, Agnes Callamare, regretted that Macron “lends his presidential aura” to Prince Mohammed, who rejects an assessment of the American secret service according to which he would have probably ordered the murder of Khashoggi, affirming that they were rogue government agents.
However, for Macron, there are other considerations.
On Friday, after Macron met with de facto UAE ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the French government announced that the emirate was purchasing 80 Rafale fighter jets produced by Dassault Aviation SA and 12 Caracal military helicopters from Airbus. France said the two contracts are worth more than 17 billion euros ($ 19 billion).
This deal provides a glimpse into Macron’s efforts to forge a more assertive foreign policy in the wake of the Australian submarine debacle, which saw French subcontractors abandoned in favor of Britain and the United States. .
The fighter plane contract will consolidate France’s position in a significant part of the Middle East and also signal other potential partners that the French can serve as an alternative to the United States. At times, UAE officials have resented US restrictions on the use of their jets and talked about easing their reliance on Washington, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Macron’s two-day Gulf tour comes after two high-profile visits to Baghdad last year and in September, when French giant TotalEnergies SE signed a package of $ 27 billion investment deals aimed at increasing production of oil and gas and reduce power outages in the second-largest producer.
The trips were seen as an effort by the French leader to bolster Europe’s presence in the region at a time when the United States is shrinking its own role in the Middle East and China is increasingly influential in the peninsula. arabic.
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Prince Mohammed was already ending his ostracism by world leaders before a trip last year by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and one later by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Business leaders attended a finance conference in October. But US President Joe Biden refused to deal directly with the prince, speaking only to his father, King Salman.
Macron and Prince Mohammed are both staunch opponents of political Islam, a school of thought that seeks to assert a major role for religion in democratic governance. Faced with the choice between autocrats and Islamists, Macron sided with Arab leaders who restrict political freedoms but say they fight extremists.
In 2020, he rolled out Khalifa Haftar’s red carpet in Paris, giving the Libyan warlord some legitimacy. That same year, he awarded the French Legion of Honor to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who was accused by human rights activists of using anti-terrorism legislation to quell peaceful dissent.
Relations between Macron and Prince Mohammed have nonetheless been difficult, exacerbated by differing policies towards countries like Lebanon, Yemen and Iran – Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.
The French leader’s last trip to Saudi Arabia dates back to 2017: a surprise visit following the abrupt resignation of then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on a TV broadcast from Riyadh. Macron later said Hariri was detained against his will, an allegation denied by Saudi officials.
Shortly after Khashoggi’s murder, Macron and the prince were caught on camera in what appeared to be a tense conversation on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina.
Still, the two countries maintain ties in areas such as defense, and France has been heavily involved in the development of Saudi Arabia’s historic Al Ula region, which Prince Mohammed wants to turn into a global tourist destination.
“It doesn’t mean that we are complacent or that we forget,” Macron told reporters when asked about his decision to visit the country. “We remain a demanding partner, but we need to talk to each other and stay engaged. Macron’s office said ahead of the trip that the president would raise the human rights issue in his private conversations with the Saudi prince.
But four months before the presidential elections, it is also an opportunity to make a statement on the world stage.
“The optics of his visit to Saudi Arabia are a partial by-product of the trip,” said Ayham Kamel, head of the Eurasia group’s research team on the Middle East and North Africa, of the idea of Macron helping rehabilitate Prince Mohammed with his visit. “It’s a part of many things he does. It sells because it shows him as a leader that everyone wants to engage with and he has global influence.
And then there is Lebanon. Strengthening the former French colony following the catastrophic explosion that devastated the port of Beirut in 2020 is one of Macron’s foreign policy priorities.
He has visited the city twice since, urging allies to increase aid and criticizing politicians who have failed to carry out economic reforms. The Saudis are the key to any solution in Lebanon, and as Kamel said, Macron knows “there is no getting around them”.
(Updates with the arrival of Macron in the second paragraph.)
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