France's Macron defends Saudi arms sales, praises MbS
French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday defended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, urging critics of Mohammed bin Salman to give the Crown Prince a chance.
The prince, widely known as MbS, wrapped up his official visit to France on Tuesday with a gala dinner hosted by President Emmanuel Macron, as the young leaders seek to shore up cooperation despite lurking differences.
Pressure has been mounting on Macron to scale back weapons support for Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced three million, leading to one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.
"Since the start of the conflict in Yemen, France has adopted a very specific process whereby all sales of military equipment are analysed on a case-by-case basis and on the basis of reinforced criteria that reflect respect for international humanitarian law and the risk of harm to civilian populations," Macron said at a news conference alongside Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Seventy-five percent of French people want Macron to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a YouGov poll found.
Several rights groups also have warned of possible legal action if the government does not halt its sales.
"France's position is clear: full support for the security of Saudi Arabia, condemnation of the ballistic activity coming from the Houthis, willingness to find a political solution to the conflict and strong humanitarian demands on civilian populations," Macron said.
France is the world's third biggest arms exporter and counts the UAE and Saudi Arabia among its biggest purchasers.
French export licensing procedures have no parliamentary checks or balances and are approved through a committee headed by the prime minister that includes the foreign, defence and economy ministries.
Details of licences are not public and, once approved, are rarely reviewed.
Macron also took aim at critics of the crown prince, urging them to give the young leader a chance.
Rights groups say the human rights situation has "deteriorated markedly" in Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman took over as crown prince.
Hundreds of people, including prominent Saudi businessmen and officials, were jailed at a luxury-hotel-turned-prison in Riyadh last November, during a crackdown spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who claims it was to tackle corruption.
Human Rights Watch likened the mass arrests to "extortion" and said the alleged mistreatment was a "serious blow to Mohammed bin Salman's claims to be a modernising reformist".
"I hear legitimate questions from civil society, journalists about human rights and various sensitive issues concerning your country, (but) I'm also looking at what's going on in the region. We have here a young leader who is going to be in the highest functions in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30," Macron said alongside the 32-year-old prince.
"We can have the choice to stick to our traditional positions and we can decide that the first acts of modernization of his society are cosmetic. If we do that then we are leaving Prince Mohammed to face those in his area that think the opposite and decide to go backwards and keep to a political Islam or terrorism," Macron added.
Ahead of the trip to France, Saudi officials suggested relations were strong between Macron and the crown prince, both young leaders with reformist agendas.