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Mohammed Ben Salman et Emmanuel Macron, jeudi à Riyad.
Mohammed Ben Salman and Emmanuel Macron, Thursday in Riyadh. – Photo credits: BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP

Mohammed Bin Salman assured the head of state that Lebanese official Saad Hariri was not under house arrest.

The sharp rise in tensions in the Middle East –with a missile firing at Riyadh from Yemen and the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri - provided an opportunity for Emmanuel Macron to be invited to Riyadh. The 39-year-old reformist president had yet to meet Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS), this 32-year-old prince with revolutionary impulses. So it's done. At the invitation of the heir to the Saudi throne, who is making headlines with his anti-corruption purge, the French head of state, who was wrapping up a 24-hour visit to the United Arab Emirates, dined Thursday evening in Riyadh with the new strongman of a long-time allied kingdom of Paris.

Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of destabilizing the Middle East, was one of the main topics on the dinner menu between the two leaders. Macron shares Riyadh's fears when he denounces "Iranian hegemonic temptations" in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But he is not far from thinking that these fears border on a certain obsession with Iran among Saudi officials.

“It is a question of having no hard-line policy that would create imbalances, even conflicts, in the region”

Emmanuel Macron, in Dubai

“I have heard very harsh positions” expressed by Saudi Arabia “vis-à-vis Iran which are not in line with what I think”, he said in Dubai, a few hours before his stopover saudi. “The President of the Republic explained the rational to Prince Ben Salman”, decrypts one at the Elysée. "It's about having no hard-line policy that would create imbalances, even conflicts, in the region," recalled the head of state in Dubai.

He thought in Lebanon, that the resignation of Saad Hariri, apparently torn off by Riyadh, plunges into uncertainty. Thursday, Saudi Arabia has called on its nationals to leave the land of Cedars. "MBS told the president that he did not want a war in Lebanon, he recalled that he was attached to the stability of the country", we insist at the Elysée. Except that the confusion around the fate of Saad Hariri pushed Paris to act. First by sending, from Thursday afternoon, the French ambassador to Riyadh, François Gouyette, to meet the resigning prime minister. “MBS told the president that Hariri was not under house arrest,” they say at the Élysée. According to a French source in Beirut, where Aurélien Le Chevalier, Macron's Middle East adviser, was dispatched on Friday, when François Gouyette spoke to Saad Hariri at his home, Saudi officials were not far away.

A frank discussion

Hariri's future is at the center of negotiations between his Saudi and French allies. Riyad would seek to replace him with one of his brothers. “A Saudi proposal was made to the Hariri family to appoint Baha, a brother of Saad, to take up the political torch,” confides the French source in Beirut. Nazek, the widow of Rafic Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005, Bahyia Hariri, the latter's sister, and Ahmad, a son of Bahyia who leads the Lebanese Al-Moustaqbal Party, were invited to Riyadh to endorse this redistribution of the cards, but the clan would have refused.

To everyone's surprise in a usually fragmented country, most Lebanese politicians have called for Saad Hariri's return to Beirut. Friday, President Michel Aoun, who does not accept this resignation, once again wished that the Prime Minister could return to Lebanon. "Involuntarily, Saudi Arabia is strengthening its popularity," said an observer, reached by telephone in Beirut.

"The subject that concerns us is the stability of Lebanon and that there is a political solution that is put in place quickly"

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Others fear that Riyadh, infuriated by Hezbollah's domination of Lebanese affairs, is waging an economic war, draining Lebanon's finances, largely dependent on the Gulf, to coerce it out of the pro-Iranian Party of God. . A scenario that disturbs Paris. "The subject that concerns us is the stability of Lebanon and that there is a political solution that is put in place quickly," said Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on Friday. Clearly, the Hariri affair is unraveling. This will be one of the objectives of the visit next Thursday to Riyadh by the head of French diplomacy.

On Yemen, if Emmanuel Macron condemns the missile launch on Riyadh, he sent "the very strong message" to MBS that the closure of Yemeni ports and airports, decided by Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the missile launch, was “a real concern”. In short, a frank discussion to which the Saudi leaders were no longer accustomed. Macron is betting that in the Gulf where we have the cult of "zaïm" (the leader), the language of truth is not necessarily counterproductive.


Source: ©  Le Figaro Premium – Macron lays the foundations for a frank dialogue with Saudi Arabia

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