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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited France to sign $18 billion in agreements, while Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid says the catastrophic war on Yemen is barely even mentioned

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BEN NORTON: It’s the Real News. I’m Ben Norton. The United Nations has warned now for well over a year that Yemen is suffering from the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet. And while Saudi Arabia continues to relentlessly bomb civilian areas in Yemen and push millions of Yemenis into famine with a crippling blockade, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler is taking luxurious trips to Western countries to sign more arms deals. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited France last week to meet with President Emmanuel Macron. The two had an opulent private dinner in the Louvre. Macron and Prince Mohammed also signed more than $18 billion of business agreements. The French president said he will visit the Saudi capital Riyadh at the end of this year to sign the contracts. Macron and Prince Mohammed also agreed to work together to isolate Iran and limit its influence in the Middle East. Macron defended French arms sales with the Saudi monarchy, despite the fact that these Western weapons have been used to kill Yemenis and bombard civilian areas in Yemen in what human rights organizations have said are clear war crimes.

Joining us to discuss Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to France and France’s role in Yemen is Akram Belkaid. Akram is an Algerian journalist and a regular contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatic. He is also the author of several books. Thanks for joining us, Akram.


BEN NORTON: So first of all, can we just speak generally about the trip that Mohammed bin Salman made to France? This is Mohammed bin Salman’s first trip to France and his first meeting with heads of state as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. What is the political significance of this trip?

AKRAM BELKAID: Well, first of all we can notice that it was a very short visit compared, for example, of the one that had placed in the U.S. I think that Mr. Mohammed bin Salman spent only two days in France. So it may give a kind of idea about how France is important for him compared to the U.S., where he spent almost three weeks, if I know.

The second thing is that usually France has always good relations with the kingdom, I mean, since the early ’70s. So there’s a kind of tradition here to g oing between Paris and Riyadh talking about economics, but also about politics. So this visit was clearly for the French government something to to clarify the position of the French government. You know that we have a new president, Macron has been elected last year, so many people were wondering if we could remain in the same approach that Francois Hollande, the former president had towards the Gulf, and especially the, this situation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. So this is, this was also a political visit, and something to work to, to clarify the positions between the two countries.

BEN NORTON: And what’s interesting about this trip is Macron had previously been a strong defender of the Iran nuclear deal. U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed that he wants to tear up that deal, and has been moving to unilaterally undermine this international agreement that was agreed to by the five members of the Security Council, along with Germany. So this is an international agreement that the U.S. has been working to undermine. Macron, it appears, is now trying to play ball. And it seems from his trip when he pledged with Mohammed bin Salman to isolate Iran in the region that he is perhaps weakening his stance on the Iran nuclear deal, and in fact increasing the aggressive posture against Tehran. What do you think France’s role is in this triangulation vis a vis Iran?

AKRAM BELKAID: Well, you have to know something. Macron is regularly criticized in France for other topics because sometimes he says one thing and the opposite in the same time. And dealing with Iran we may find the same situation. He is in favor of this nuclear agreement. He has stated many times that he was going to do his best to maintain this agreement. But after this visit we are asking ourselves if this position haven’t been, I mean, hasn’t been weakened. Because we all know that Saudi Arabia is against the deal, that Saudi Arabia want more steps, harsh steps against Iran. And Macron was expected to say to Mohammed bin Salman that France would not allow any weakening of the nuclear deal towards Iran. So by accepting the fact that we have to isolate Iran, Macron gave the sensation, the idea that France would accept the cancellation of this agreement, which is something really important for the stability of the Middle East and also for the Gulf stability.

So we are maybe going to have a statement from the French government in the coming days about this nuclear agreement, because we all know that the White House in the U.S. is going to try to say something important about it in the coming days. So by the beginning of May. So we are expecting back home to clarify himself his position too, about this.

BEN NORTON: And then let’s talk about France’s role in Yemen. A recent poll found that 75 percent of people in France, that is, three quarters of people oppose selling weapons to countries involved in the war in Yemen. And that includes, of course, Saudi Arabia and also the United Arab Emirates. The poll also found that 88 percent of people in France, nearly nine tenths of people in the country, want to stop all arms exports to countries where there is a risk they can be used against civilian populations in armed conflict. So we see that there is clearly massive opposition against French arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, we have seen that France has continued signing arms sales, and not just with Saudi Arabia, with other Gulf monarchies. Why do you think that’s happening? What is your political analysis of the situation?

AKRAM BELKAID: Well, unfortunately it is something very common in this country. It’s not only with Saudi Arabia. A few weeks ago we had the visit of Mr. Sisi, the President Sisi from Egypt. And we know what is happening right now in Egypt with kind of, you know, human rights being daily violated by the government, the Egyptian government. And the political authorities in France are having relations with Egypt and without criticizing what is happening in Egypt and trying to send more and more equipments, arms, but not only arms to Egypt.

So what is happening with Saudi Arabia, you know, the public opinion of course is against selling arms to any country that is using it against another country in wars, especially when it’s civil war, and when also it’s the richest, one of the richest country in the world, Saudi Arabia, attacking one of the, one of the poorest in the world. But in the same time the government is always doing what it wants on these issues. And even our Congress, our parliament, l’Assemblee nationale, is not able to ask the government what is happening and why are we selling arms, guns, to Saudi Arabia being used against the Yemeni people.

So this is the situation. More than that, it is also a problem for the French media because this war, what is happening is Yemen is not covered at all. You can, may sometimes find some subject about this, some topics, but no one is clearly explaining what is happening. They are trying, sometimes, the main media here are trying to explain that it’s a very conventional war, and that of course it’s, Saudi Arabia is legitimate to intervene in Yemen because of Iran, because Iran might be present in, in Yemen. So this is why, you know, till now what would be, what should be a national debate is not taking place because of the lack of information in the media, the lack of information to the public opinion, and also the fact that the main, and the main attitude, the main target for the government is to pursue the economic and the political cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It is something you can not change. I mean, it’s obviously, France had relations with all these Arab autocrats for a long time. And it is not something that the, what we call the Arab Spring has changed, unfortunately.

BEN NORTON: And then finally, why don’t I conclude here, in the United States, when Mohammed bin Salman met with President Trump in the Oval Office, Trump immediately at the beginning of their press event boasted of the billions of dollars of arms sales the U.S. is doing with Saudi Arabia. And specifically Trump argued that these weapons sales are going to create jobs here domestically. And he clearly framed these arms sales in an entirely economic framework, specifically a neoliberal framework, about, you know, bringing back, you know, this kind of market-based opportunities for the United States. That’s why we have to participate in these wars, etc. It’s an entirely economic justification for what, as I mentioned, is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.

I’m wondering, in France do we see similar arguments? Or specifically, what do you think is the economic angle? As I mentioned, Macron, the French president, defended, during this trip defended French arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite the massive opposition and the large criticism. Do you think that ultimately this is not just a geopolitical question in terms of France’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, but it’s also an economic one?

AKRAM BELKAID: It’s an economic one if you do consider the other markets. I mean, France do not intend to sell only arms and weapons to Saudi Arabia. There are other markets. There are other targets, I mean, civilians who want to sell planes, who want to sell energy, we want to sell know how in many topics. So it’s a whole, it’s not only guns and weapons. But it’s not the same as the, the language is not the same as in the U.S. We don’t hear a lot about jobs and economy.

The official speech, the official reasons that are given, when they are given, I mean, it’s not always the case. Because as I say, there is not a debate on this, on this matter. But when the reasons are given it’s more to say that we are selling guns and weapons to Saudi Arabia for the stability, the regional stability. Because the enemy, the idea is that the danger is coming from Saudi Arabia, that it’s coming from other countries. And these other countries are, of course, Iran. And sometimes we may say that we have to support Saudi Arabia against terrorism. I mean, it’s a question of communication. It’s a question of political advisements, here. And once you have, while you have a lack of information in the media it’s easy to sell this kind of story to, to the, to the audience.

BEN NORTON: Well, thank you so much for joining us here at the Real News to discuss this issue. We were joined by our Akram Belkaid. Akram is an Algerian journalist, and a regular contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatic. He’s also the author of several books. Thanks for joining us.

AKRAM BELKAID: Thank you. Thank you.

BEN NORTON: Reporting for the Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.