(Bloomberg) -- With a mammoth military deal already in his pocket, President Emmanuel Macron ends his Gulf tour in Saudi Arabia Saturday where he’ll seek to raise France’s standing as a serious player in global affairs despite criticism over the kingdom’s human rights record.
Macron, who faces a tough election fight in April, is the first major western leader to visit the world’s biggest oil exporter and meet in the country with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since he was implicated in the brutal murder in 2018 of Saudi columnist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.
The visit coincides with a weekend of festivities that will help to 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 be performing when the kingdom hosts its inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday.
World Champion driver Lewis Hamilton said he felt “uncomfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia given its human rights record. In Le Monde newspaper, Amnesty International chief Agnes Callamare regretted Macron was “lending his presidential aura” to Prince Mohammed, who dismisses a U.S. intelligence assessment that he’d likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing, saying it was rogue government agents.
Yet for Macron there are other considerations.
On Friday, after Macron met with the UAE’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the French government announced the emirate was buying 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).
That deal offers an insight into Macron’s efforts to carve out a more assertive foreign policy in the aftermath of the Australian submarine debacle, which saw the French contractors dropped in favor of Britain and the U.S.
The fighter-jet contract will cement France’s position in an important part of the Middle East and also signals to other prospective partners that the French can serve as an alternative to the U.S. At times, UAE officials have chafed at restrictions the U.S. placed on the use of their jets and talked of easing their reliance on Washington, according to one person with knowledge of the discussions.
Macron’s two-day tour of the Gulf comes after two high-profile visits to Baghdad last year and in September, when French giant TotalEnergies SE signed a $27 billion package of investment deals aimed at boosting oil and gas output and reducing power outages in OPEC’s second-biggest producer.
The trips were seen as an effort by the French leader to boost Europe’s presence in the region at a time when the U.S. is reducing its own role in the Middle East and China is increasingly influential in the Arabian peninsula.
Read more: The French Won’t Forget Being Snubbed Over Submarines
Prince Mohammed was already ending his ostracization by world leaders before a trip last year by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and one later by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Business leaders attended a finance conference in October. But U.S. President Joe Biden has refused to deal directly with the prince, speaking only to his father, King Salman.
Macron and Prince Mohammed are both firm opponents of political Islam, a strand of thinking that seeks to assert a major role for religion in democratic governance. Faced with the choice between autocrats and Islamists, Macron has sided with Arab leaders who restrict political freedoms but say they are combating extremists.
In 2020, he rolled out the red carpet for Khalifa Haftar in Paris, conferring a degree of legitimacy on the Libyan warlord. That same year, he awarded the French Legion of Honor to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who’s been accused by rights activists of using counter-terrorist legislation to suppress peaceful dissent.
Relations between Macron and Prince Mohammed have nevertheless been difficult, exacerbated by differing policies toward countries including Lebanon, Yemen and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.
The French leader’s last trip to Saudi Arabia was in 2017: a surprise visit after Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly resigned in a television broadcast from Riyadh. Macron later said Hariri had been held against his will, an allegation Saudi officials denied.
Soon after Khashoggi’s killing, Macron and the prince were captured on video 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 fields such as defense and France has been extensively involved in the development of Saudi Arabia’s historic Al Ula region, which Prince Mohammed wants to turn into a global tourist destination.
“That doesn’t mean that we are complacent, or that we forget,” Macron told reporters, when asked about his decision to travel to the country. “We remain a demanding partner but we have to talk to each other and stay engaged.” Macron’s office said ahead of the trip that the president would raise the issue of human rights during his private conversations with the Saudi prince.
Four months from presidential elections, though, it’s also a chance to make a statement on the world stage.
“The optics of his visit to Saudi Arabia is a partial byproduct of the trip,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa research team, about the idea that Macron is helping to rehabilitate Prince Mohammed with his visit. “That’s one part of multiple things he’s doing. It sells because it shows him as a leader everyone wants to engage with and that he has global influence.”
And then there’s Lebanon. Shoring up the former French colony following the catastrophic blast that ripped through the Beirut port in 2020, is one of Macron’s foreign policy priorities.
He visited the city twice since, pushing allies to step up aid and criticizing politicians who have failed to carry out economic reforms. The Saudis are key to any solution in Lebanon, and as Kamel put it, Macron knows “there’s no bypassing them.”
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