French president Emmanuel Macron held talks late Thursday with Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince as tensions between Tehran and Riyadh soar over crises in Yemen and Lebanon.
Macron, on his debut visit to the Middle East, flew in from a tour of the United Arab Emirates for his first face-to-face talks with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who recently launched a massive anti-graft crackdown on the kingdom’s elite.
The visit comes at a time of growing friction between the Sunni kingdom and Shiite Iran, which are pitted on opposite sides in Lebanon and Yemen.
‘I’ve heard some very hard positions’ taken by Saudi Arabia against Iran, Macron told a news conference in Dubai before his visit, adding it was important to speak to all sides and that France had a role in making peace.
In the wake of a failed missile attack against Riyadh airport on Saturday, which was claimed by Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen, the kingdom has accused Tehran of ‘direct aggression’.
Iran vehemently dismissed the charge that it supplied missiles to the Huthis and warned Saudi Arabia of its ‘might’, prompting fresh acrimony between the regional heavyweights.
‘The French president condemned the Huthi missile attack on Riyadh, stressing France’s stand and solidarity with the Kingdom,’ the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.
The two leaders ‘also discussed the latest developments in the Middle East and their efforts for security and stability in the region, including joint coordination in the fight against terrorism,’ it added.
On Iran, Macron has repeatedly said that he wanted to keep the landmark 2015 nuclear deal despite opposition from US president Donald Trump.
US pressure to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal could push Tehran into deciding to build its own nuclear weapons, Macron told Time magazine in an interview published Thursday.
Macron and prince Mohammed also discussed developments in Lebanon, whose prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in a shock announcement broadcast from Riyadh on Saturday, citing Iran’s ‘grip’ on his country and threats to his life.
Lebanon, a former French colony, has become the latest front line of the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday urged its citizens to leave Lebanon ‘as soon as possible’ and also called on them not to travel to the country, without specifying any threat.
Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil on Thursday demanded the return of Hariri from Saudi Arabia, amid media reports that he was being held in the kingdom.
Macron’s visit comes days after prince Mohammed launched what the Saudi government has dubbed a wide-ranging corruption crackdown, arresting dozens of members of the royal family as well as ministers and businessmen.
Macron was earlier in the UAE capital for the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi — the first museum to carry the famed brand outside France — which he hailed as a ’bridge between civilisations’ and religions.
Macron said the UAE has closed a deal to buy two French-made Gowind navy corvettes, built for coastal surveillance and anti-submarine warfare.
International rights group, including Human Rights Watch, have criticised Western nations for profiting from arms sales to the Saudi-led military coalition battling rebels in Yemen, in which the UAE is a key member.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a complete blockade on Yemen in the wake of the Huthi missile attack, as the UN warns that the Arab world’s poorest country faces the risk of a mass famine.
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