Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) arrived in Greece Tuesday and is due to head to France later in the week, his first European Union trip since the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018 brought the powerful crown prince international condemnation.
MBS will meet with the leaders of both France and Greece “to discuss bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in various fields”, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a statement from the royal court.
The trip comes less than two weeks after US President Joe Biden visited the Saudi city of Jeddah for a summit of Arab leaders and met one-on-one with the crown prince, greeting him with a fist bump.
That move sealed Biden’s retreat from a presidential election campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” over the Khashoggi affair and wider human rights controversies.
US intelligence agencies determined that MBS, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, though Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.
Accompanied by three ministers and a large business delegation, the crown prince held talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens, footage broadcast live by Greece’s ERT public television showed.
At the start of the meeting, MBS said the two countries would finalise a series of bilateral projects, including the installation of an electricity cable linking Saudi Arabia to Greece that will provide Europe “with much cheaper energy”, he said.
On Wednesday, agreements on maritime transport, energy and defence technology are due to be signed, according to a statement by the Greek foreign ministry.
The crown prince’s stay in Europe represents a “highly symbolic move past his post-Khashoggi isolation”, said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.
“While there has not been any formal coordination of policy in the ‘West’ against Mohammed bin Salman since 2018, the fact is that he has not visited any European or North American country since Khashoggi’s killing,” Ulrichsen said.
MBS has also received a recent boost from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Saudi Arabia in April, then welcomed MBS in Ankara in June.
Erdogan had enraged the Saudis by vigorously pursuing the Khashoggi case, opening an investigation and briefing international media about the lurid details of the killing.
But with ties on the mend, an Istanbul court halted the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi suspects linked to Khashoggi’s death, transferring the case to Riyadh in April.
Oil focusAfter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a spike in energy prices earlier this year, Saudi Arabia came under pressure from the United States and European powers to pump more oil.
Elevated oil prices have been a key factor in inflation in the US soaring to 40-year highs, putting pressure on the Biden administration ahead of midterm elections later this year.
But the world’s biggest crude exporter has resisted pressure to open the supply taps, citing its commitment to production schedules determined by the OPEC+ exporting bloc it co-leads with Russia.
In May, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated that the kingdom had done what it could for the oil market.
Last week French President Emmanuel Macron received the new president of the energy-rich United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in Paris.
During that trip officials announced a deal between French energy giant Total Energies and UAE state oil company ADNOC “for cooperation in the area of energy supplies”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)