DUBAI/RIYADH: French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Riyadh on Thursday for hastily scheduled talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, notably over Lebanon and Yemen.
Macron — who flew in from a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — had earlier declined to discuss a wave of high-level arrests for corruption in Saudi Arabia but said it was vital to work with the kingdom for the stability of the region.
He told a news conference in Dubai that the decision to go to Riyadh had been made on Thursday morning, and that his first face-to-face talks with the prince would focus on “regional questions, in particular, Yemen and Lebanon”.
Two top Lebanese government officials said on Thursday that Riyadh was holding Lebanon’s Saad al-Hariri captive and a third told Reuters that the Saudi authorities had ordered al-Hariri to resign while he was in Riyadh last weekend, and put him under house arrest.
Saudi Arabia has denied that he is under house arrest but Hariri himself has not denied that his movements are being restricted.
France has close ties with Lebanon — a former colony — and with Hariri, who has a home in France after spending several years in the country.
Macron said there had been informal contacts with Hariri but no request to transfer him to France. Two French diplomats also said they were unaware of any plans to bring Hariri to France.
Macron said he would “emphasize the importance of Lebanese stability and integrity” in his talks in Riyadh.
“My wish is that all Lebanese political officials live freely in Lebanon… which means having a very demanding stance on those who could threaten any leader,” he added.
Television pictures showed a smiling Macron being met at Riyadh airport by the crown prince.
In recent years, France has been able to nurture new links with the Gulf Arab states due to its tough stance on Iran in nuclear negotiations, and the broad similarity of their policies on conflicts across the Middle East.
However, the 32-year-old crown prince has emphasized closer ties with US President Donald Trump at a time when Macron has, in turn, sought to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for regional influence.
‘Strong concerns about Iran’
In Yemen, the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthi movement said on Monday it had closed all air, land, and sea ports to stem the flow of arms to the Houthis from Iran.
The United Nations said the move risked causing “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims”.
Macron said he would insist to Prince Mohammed that Riyadh must open the borders to allow humanitarian access.
On Iran, Macron repeated that he wanted to keep the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which US President Donald Trump has challenged.
But he said he was “very concerned” by Iran’s ballistic missile program, mentioning a missile fired from Yemen and intercepted by Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and raised the prospect of possible sanctions with regard to those activities.
“There are extremely strong concerns about Iran. There are negotiations we need to start on Iran’s ballistic missiles,” he said.
“Like what was done in 2015 for the nuclear activities, it’s necessary to put a framework in place for Iran’s ballistic activities and open a process, with sanctions if needed, of negotiation that would enable (that).”
Iran has denied providing ballistic missiles to Yemeni Houthi rebels and says its missile program is purely defensive and should not be linked to the nuclear deal.
Macron reaffirmed his intention to go to Iran as part of efforts to talk to all the actors in the region but warned about decisions that could destabilize the region further.
“Iran is a regional power… there should be no naivety in terms of Iran, it is about standing beside our allies, in particular, the United Arab Emirates, but it is about not having any policy that could create imbalances, conflicts in the region.”