By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – France said on Wednesday it could impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia if its intelligence services find the kingdom was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, even as Paris worked to maintain important business and strategic ties with Riyadh.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised on Wednesday that Khashoggi’s killers would be brought to justice, in his first public comments since the journalist’s murder provoked international condemnation.
French reaction has been relatively guarded to date, as Paris tried to retain its influence with Riyadh and protect commercial relations spanning energy, finance and arms.
But President Emmanuel Macron told King Salman that France, in coordination with partners, could take action against those held responsible for the murder, the presidency said in a statement.
Macron expressed profound outrage during a phone conversation with Salman, it said, adding that the president had asked the king that the circumstances around Khashoggi’s death be fully disclosed.
The two leaders also discussed the situation in Yemen and Syria, the Elysee palace said.
“As long as the facts have not been clearly established, and corroborated by our information services, we will not take any decision,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said earlier on Wednesday.
“On the other hand, once light has been shed on the matter and has been corroborated by our services, based on the hypothesis that Saudi Arabia’s responsibility has been proved, then we would draw the necessary conclusions and impose appropriate sanctions,” he said.
Any steps would not just involve sanctions on arms sales he said, without elaborating.
Earlier, a French presidency source said there would be no “hasty decision”.
Other major Western allies of Saudi Arabia have already spoken out. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that the crown prince may be behind Khashoggi’s death. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called his killing a “monstrosity” and vowed to halt German arms exports.
Britain, like France a major weapons supplier to the kingdom, has said an explanation by Riyadh that Khashoggi died in a fight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was not credible. Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday Britain would prevent all suspects in his death from entering the UK.
A senior French diplomat acknowledged Macron was treading a thin line in pursuing his long-stated policy of avoiding taking sides between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran.
“We’re a bit in the shit because of this,” he said, referring to the Khashoggi furore. “We have an important partnership, but while we never considered Saudi to be the cradle of human rights, this is serious. It can’t be ignored. There will be consequences, but we need to be prudent.”
Since coming to power last year, Macron has largely ignored protests over arms sales he deems vital to jobs and France’s strategic relationships in the region.
From 2008 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second biggest purchaser of French arms, with deals totalling 11 billion euros ($12.7 billion), including 1.5 billion last year alone.
Reflecting the range of French commercial interests in the region, the head of oil company Total was attending the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, a meeting boycotted by a number of his peers in the wake of the Khashoggi killing.
Macron considers Riyadh vital to help forge a region-wide peace deal with Iran, as well as an ally in the fight against Islamist militants from the Middle East to West Africa, and a rampart against the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The sale of weapons is something very political and part of a long-term vision,” said Camille Lons, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Saudi Arabia is present across the region, so if there were to be complications in diplomatic relations it could have an impact on several regional theatres.”
ALLIANCE OF YOUTH
At the heart of Macron’s strategy is Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MbS, who has painted himself as a reformer but is under scrutiny over Khashoggi’s death.
During a visit to France this year Macron urged detractors to give time to the 33-year-old leader-in-waiting.
“The challenge is not to lose MbS. A loss of influence in the region would cost us much more than the lack of arms sales,” a French minister said on condition of anonymity.
Macron has tried to play down the importance of economic relations and instead played up the strategic partnership.
“Paris — while projecting its outward image of a beacon of liberalism and idealism — is deeply interested in getting even closer to the current rulers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi,” said Jalel Harchaoui, geopolitics lecturer at Versailles University.
“The dominant perception is that both leaders are dynamic and assertive while the Khashoggi affair is just a temporary crisis during which no mistakes must be made.”
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Matthias Blamont; Writing by Ingrid Melander and John Irish; Editing by Luke Baker, Jon Boyle and David Stamp)