« Macron – MbS: A murderous connection » is a series about the relations between the French State and Saudi Arabia. It focuses on the relationships between their current heads of States, Emmanuel Macron and Mohammed bin Salman, on the war in Yemen fueled by French arms and on Saudi oil in the context of a climate and energy crisis – Nicolas Barbier, researcher and journalist (PhD in geography).
THE TRAJECTORY of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), crown prince of the « black gold » kingdom, has not much in common with that of Emmanuel Macron, president of the French republic since 2017. If both were born in material comfort, the prince has always lived in monarchic luxury, whereas the president had to wait until he could experience a much less lavish luxury. In a country where royal blood makes access to the highest positions in government and private sector a lot easier, MbS’s social status first gave him an obvious edge over Emmanuel Macron.
II.1. THE WAY OF « A MOST LIKEABLE KILLER »
As a child, Emmanuel Macron already coveted some kind of leading position: « He always wanted to take the biggest fish! », said Sylvie, a cousin who remembered their fishing expeditions in the mountains. If this kind of obsession is harmless during childhood games, it is another story if such an obsession persists when you are an adult (Algalarrondo, 2021).
When he was a teenager, Emmanuel Macron was a very good student. He liked ski, tennis and drama. At 16, he left aside the protected upper class neighborhood of Henriville in Amiens to study in Paris. Privileged, literate and bright, Emmanuel Macron entered the prestigious Henri IV high-school. He then studied at Sciences po university, a doorway to the Ecole normale d’administration, the launching ramp towards the highest ranking positions of French civil servants and their generous wages (among other lucrative opportunities). Remembering his rather favored youth, Emmanuel Macron recognized that, when he moved to Paris, he was « as ambitious as the young wolves of Balzac » (a famous French writer). A student who knew him described Emmanuel Macron as « a most likeable killer, but a killer nonetheless ». After graduating from the Ecole normale d’administration, the future president picked a key institution of the French State which connects several governmental ministries: the Inspection générale des finances responsible for the management of national public funds (Algalarrondo, 2021; Janin, 2017; Nazaret, 2017).
In his late twenties, sitting comfortably at the Inspection générale des finances, Emmanuel Macron was noticed by Laurence Parisot. At the time, she was the president of the Medef, the largest French employers’ organization representing CEOs. Laurence Parisot attempted to hire Emmanuel Macron, but to no avail. He preferred an area connected to French CEOs: the Rothschild investment bank where money also flows abundantly. And he enjoyed working as an investment banker from 2008 to 2012: « You are a prostitute of sorts whose job it is to charm », Macron said. His largest banking operation, worth 9 billion euros, consisted in transferring the baby milk branch of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company to the Nestlé food industry behemoth (Business cool, 2022; Nazaret, 2017).
Ravenous for leadership
In a State like France where political leaders always maintain close relations with influential investors, bankers and other money lenders, it was only natural for an ambitious charmer like Emmanuel Macron to crave for a high-caliber political career. This ambition does not only manifest an aspiration to be elected political leader number one in France with, of course, the « best » program. For him, it also indicates a willingness to exercise legal authority over people. Among other examples, two recent goals long expressed by president Macron are becoming law:
- Postponing retirement to 64 years-old, an unpopular decision that his government is about to impose on the French population;
- Forcing people who usually live way below the poverty line and get 500 euros a month of unemployment benefits to do a job they either hate or may not want.
In both cases, Emmanuel Macron and his government target people whose situation is already difficult (the oldest workers and the poor) to make their life even more difficult (Derre, Duong, Kebdani, 2023; Ifop, L’express, 2023, p.5).
Getting to the top of the French republic and impose programs on others requires some experience. Emmanuel Macron had to avoid quite a few missteps. He was first hired as deputy secretary in the office of socialist president François Hollande (2012-2017) after taking part in Hollande’s successful election campaign. It was a clever move. At 36, he was appointed minister of the economy, the industry and digital field by François Hollande. By then, Emmanuel Macron could consider himself as one of the prominent French people of his time. But that was not enough (Business cool, 2022; Piquard, 2023).
He created his own political party, En marche, in order to succeed Hollande, taking advantage of three favorable conditions: the logical mutation of the socialist party in which most leaders (such as Emmanuel Macron) were content with huge economic and social inequities within the French population [Normand, 2023]; right-wing leaders who had lost credibility because of their involvement in various illegal activities; a center that had no real identity. By the time he will retire as president in 2027, will Emmanuel Macron get back to his « first love » in his career, the control of big money in the public or private sector and the prestige given by lots of people to jobs related to that control? It is precisely that control that lures and drives him, perhaps more so than personal financial interests. Anyway, both go hand in hand. In February 2023, Emmanuel Macron awarded amazon multibillionaire CEO Jeff Bezos the Legion of Honour. As an astute charmer of individuals who play a significant economic role on the world stage, he is probably already preparing his presidential retirement. In any case, as a former president, he will still be part of the upper class or become very, very rich (Business cool, 2022 ; Piquard, 2023).
Ambition on the world stage, a desire to be seen by « high-level » people as one of them, as well as an appetite for the control of money are three common features of Emmanuel Macron and MbS. In Saudi Arabia, there are many princes thirsty for political authority (considering that princesses do not count in the political arena). In this type of environment, MbS could have lazed around in luxury without any prominent role. He was not destined to sit on the Saudi throne. Four elder brothers died prematurely and « let » him get there (Hubbard, 2020, p.10-12).
II.2. « HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS »
Once upon a time the Al Sauds
One of MbS’s private teachers in English reminisces that, as a teenager, MbS could do pretty much whatever he wanted to in his life of palaces. Aside from family and close relations, everyone was supposed to say « His Royal Highness » whenever they wanted to talk with him (Hubbard, 2020, p.10).
Who does MbS owe so much reverence to? MbS’s ancestors seized power in large swaths of the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Before that, his family, called the Al Sauds, harvested dates and were involved in caravan trade. They were rather belligerent and took part in rivalries and battles between regional clans and tribes. Their status changed when they decided to form an alliance with sheikh Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. This man preached a conservative and puritan version of Sunni Islam, which has persisted in Saudi Arabia since then. This alliance with the sheikh enabled the Al Sauds to assert their regional authority while entrusting religious and social affairs to Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants. In the early 19th century, the Al Sauds ruled a territory that stretched from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. Then the Ottomans took over these lands for almost a century. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Al Sauds allied themselves with wahhabist Bedouins and managed to reclaim the lands they had lost to the Ottomans. After that, they fought the Bedouins in order to govern the whole area by themselves. The Al Sauds founded the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. During the 1930s, gigantic quantities of oil were discovered in the Arabian Peninsula. The Al Sauds’ wealth dates back to that time. A few years later, their wealth was consolidated by the United States through an agreement that granted Americans access to Saudi oil in exchange for U.S. military protection against foreign attacks (Frontline, 2005; Hubbard, 2020, p.5-6).
Even though the time of the predominance of oil on the energy market is now limited [IEA, 2022, p.435-436], Saudi Arabia continues to take advantage of a special relationship with America, based on that old agreement. In 2022, the two countries signed a new series of important agreements (energy, high-tech, etc.) and renewed their partnership on oil and defense. MbS was deeply involved in this process. Twenty years ago, nothing could portend that the future crown prince would become such a key player at this level. In the early 2000s, after two of his brothers passed away, MbS began to spend more time with his father Salman who at the time was the governor of the kingdom’s capital. MbS learnt and remembered numerous lessons from his father, especially how to properly use royal authority and maintain important relations. In the end, this prolonged closeness with his father probably enabled MbS to « outperform » other brothers who also wanted to be crown prince (Hubbard, 2020, p.10-12; The White House, 2022).
MbS « The Great »
MbS chose to stay in Saudi Arabia to study. According to a student who knew him, MbS thought of himself as a leader like Alexander the Great, the famous Macedonian king who conquered a part of southwestern Asia during the 4th century BC. He did not start his career like Alexander though. After graduating from university, he had to be content with « adventures » in the real estate and stock markets… (Hubbard, 2020, p.15)
In the early 2010s, MbS compared his creativity with that of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Again, it was just talk. In reality, he had to champ at the bit, sidelined by king Abdullah who did not like him very much and put him in a secondary position at the ministry of defense. MbS was patient. Most importantly, he remained very close to his father, then minister of defense. When Abdullah died in 2015, MbS’s father Salman became king at 79 and entrusted his son with this instrumental ministry. MbS did not waste one second. As soon as he was appointed, he concocted two supreme councils (on economic development and security), cut governmental spendings, ordered the Saudi military to attack Yemen’s Houthi minority and took over Aramco, the largest Saudi oil company (with Amin H. Nasser as CEO). Thanks to his quick ascent, his fortune rose by a few billion dollars. Now in his thirties, MbS was one step away from his dreams of conquest (Hubbard, 2020, p.15, 27, 30-31, 39-40).
In 2022, king Salman appointed his son as prime minister. This decision made MbS Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. It turned out that MbS has developed a brand new vision for his country. In 2023, this vision is widely implemented across Saudi lands. For the last few years, MbS has been focusing first and foremost on an all-encompassing development program called Vision 2030. He does not allow any Saudi to slow it down, much less to thwart it. Aside from the elimination by Saudi agents of well-known journalist Jamal Khashoggi who dared moderately criticize the Saudi kingdom (see part 1), MbS has been getting rid of even minor dissidents by using the royal police and tribunals that follow the king’s and MbS’s orders. Not only do the police and tribunals relentlessly hunt down, prosecute and punish government opponents; they also go after mere critics who are influential on the internet. All these people may and often times do go to jail for years or decades so that Vision 2030 and other plans made by MbS could blossom without any domestic interference (Parstoday, 2023).
By implementing his vision, MbS would like his country to thrive in the 21st century with a more diversified economy within a « dynamic » Saudi society. In a nutshell, Vision 2030 is a wide-ranging governmental program which aims at:
- improving the quality of life through healthcare, housing, education, etc.,
- developing the Saudi economy through employment opportunities, more industries, privatizations, domestic and foreign investments,
- increasing government efficiency.
Making military equipment inside Saudi Arabia and reinforcing national and islamic identity are two other main objectives of MbS’s vision. Between 2021 and 2030, it is estimated that it could cost as much as 3,300 billion dollars, including a great amount of petrodollars without which this vision would not be the same (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2022 [b], 2022 [c]; Ministère de l’économie et des finances, 2021).
So oil still plays a crucial role in Saudi Arabia. In France as well.
II.3. COMMON VISIONS AND MIRAGES
In this time of accelerating global warming, the French State is dead set on not lacking oil. Over the last few years, France has been doing everything it could to diversify its suppliers of petroleum products as much as possible. As a result, French imports of Saudi crude oil have also been gradually decreasing to 8 percent of the national imports of crude oil in 2021. That year, France imported a total of three billion euros worth of petroleum products from Saudi Arabia. The French State also exports products which fuel global warming to MbS’s kingdom, starting, in 2021 alone, with 840 million euros worth of Airbus aviation equipment. By 2026, the Saudis will have purchased a total of 200 A320 Airbus made in France. Even if we add about one billion euros worth of French arms bought by the Saudis annually from 2012 to 2021 with deliveries that continue to this day (see part 1), all these figures could soon pale in comparison with business opportunities that the two States would like to materialize in a near future (Direction générale du trésor, 2023).
To help prepare Saudi Arabia for an inescapable « oil-free » future, still decades away, MbS wants to transform Aramco, his oil industry behemoth. He would like to turn it into some type of « industrial conglomerate ». There is still a lot of work to do. Among his other « visionary » energy plans, he would like his country to generate 58 gigawatts with renewable energies by 2030, especially solar power. There is some delay though. Vision 2030 planned on 27 gigawatts with renewables as early as 2023, but the Saudi kingdom merely generated two gigawatts in 2022. According to experts, the objective of 58 gigawatts in 2030 will never be reached and the electricity generated via renewables should not exceed 20 gigawatts by then. Is 58 gigawatts that ambitious for a country of 35 million people so rich in dollars and sun anyway? No, it is not, considering also how much electricity the Saudis consume. By comparison, in 2022, French onshore wind energy generated 20 gigawatts [La Tribune, 2023], that is only 7,5 percent of the electricity produced in France for a population of 67 million [Ministère TECT, 2023] (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2022 [a], p.49; Power technology, 2022).
During the next twenty years, and perhaps beyond 2050, the Saudi economy will still be heavily dependent on oil extraction and revenues, and on underground resources more generally. Saudi Arabia is the second largest oil producer in the world after the United States. In 2022, Saudi company Aramco made record profits that topped 161 billion dollars [Aljazeera, 2023], thanks mostly to oil, and natural gas to a much lesser degree. Among other international influencers, Emmanuel Macron contributed to these oil profits. In March 2022, along with other G7 heads of States, he asked the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) if they could increase oil production in order to reduce dependence on Russian oil and decrease gasoline prices for European consumers. The French president renewed his request during the summer of 2022. However, the Saudis are always careful to raise oil production in a moderate and calculated manner so that crude oil prices would not fall to the point where it would result in significantly reduced profits. Beyond oil and natural gas, MbS and Saudi Arabia are intent on boosting metal mining as quickly as possible, focusing in part on aluminium, copper, gold and uranium among other metals, while creating 90,000 jobs in this sector in the process. The metal industry also emits lots of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for about 10 percent of global emissions (mining, smelting and refining) (BP, 2022, p.15; Conseil européen, conseil de l’UE, 2022; Europe 1, 2022; IEEFA, 2022; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2022 [a], p.49; Motoshita et al., 2022).
The French government apparently approves virtually everything in Vision 2030, including this development of extractive industries.
Macron: « Supporting the vision of prince Mohammed »
Just before MbS was invited by Emmanuel Macron at the French presidential palace in July 2022, the director of the French-Saudi council of business declared that both countries were « at the beginning of an investment cycle worth tens of billions of euros ». This cycle is driven to a great extent by Emmanuel Macron’s desire to see the French private sector benefit from the princely vision (Sfeir, 2022).
As early as 2018, Emmanuel Macron expressed his enthusiasm about it:
This economic relationship [with Saudi Arabia] derives from the development of French companies that can support prince Mohammed’s plans and Vision 2030. [… ] We have got competences and skills that warrant the participation of our companies. […] I would like this economic partnership to deepen our relations (Élysée, 2018).
During the in-person meeting between Macron and MbS in Paris in 2022, the French president manifestly did not see any mirage in the vision of the prince. He plainly applauded it, encouraging once again French companies to take part:
Underlying the efforts made by the Saudi Kingdom to diversify its economy as part of Vision 2030, the French President stressed the availability of French companies to support this transformation, notably in regard to energy transition. He also recalled the well-known competences of French companies regarding sustainable cities, digital technology or transportation. The President of the Republic also commended the Saudi willingness to increase investments in French industries and production (Élysée, 2022).
When it comes to the Saudi energy transition and the so-called competences of French companies regarding sustainable cities, digital technology or transportation, Emmanuel Macron failed to recall some realities:
- The Saudi energy transition, dubious at best, tremendously relies on petrodollars.
- French big cities are fiercely unfair from a social and economic standpoint. They are plagued by an extremely high cost of housing that is totally disconnected from its real value. Our big cities are polluted at varying degrees, still dominated by car travels and subject to an ongoing urban densification in areas already too densely populated. All of this is going on at the expense of largely devitalized French rural areas (Brès, 2020 ; Marten-Pérolin, 2022 ; Mediapart, 2022 ; France stratégie, 2022, p.5, 7, 9, 11-13 ; RFI, 2019).
- The French centers of digital technology cannot compete with international leaders, especially the Chinese and American ones (lafinancepourtous, 2022).
- In France, most of the transportation sector is « on steroids », addicted mostly to either gasoline or nuclear power (and therefore uranium mined abroad) (Ministère TECT, 2022).
Future partnerships between France and Saudi Arabia in the energy, transportation or urban sectors and in other potential areas can already benefit from significant ties between the two States and a strong French presence in the desert kingdom. In 2021, direct French investments in Saudi Arabia had an assessed value of three billion dollars. 130 French companies (transportation, aeronautics, energy, waste management, water treatment, etc.) operate in Saudi territory (TotalEnergies, Engie, EDF, Air Liquide, etc.). In addition, France and Saudi Arabia signed several agreements in the sectors of culture, the digital economy, tourism and space in 2021. In the wake of this strengthening cooperation, Emmanuel Macron sent French minister of the economy Bruno Le Maire to the Future investment initiative organized in the capital of Riyad in 2022. The minister flew to the kingdom with « a large delegation of French CEOs ». Emmanuel Macron did not mention « the competences of French companies in sustainable cities » in a haphazard way. French CEOs will most likely be seduced by the 500 billion dollars pledged by MbS to build Neom, a futuristic desert city, designed like some kind of technological hub where everything is automated (Gautherie, 2022 ; Levesque, 2022).
In lithium, uranium and petrodollars we trust
In this last part of my series, I go a little farther than a mere examination of economic plans involving both France and Saudi Arabia. Both Emmanuel Macron and MbS portray themselves as progressive leaders when it comes to protecting the environment and fighting climate change. So what are the environmental impacts of some of the French and Saudi flagship economic plans? (Chauveau, 2022; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2022 [c])
From a financial perspective, MbS has no choice but to use Saudi revenues from the 297 billion barrels of oil left in Saudi ground if he wants to fund his whopping $3,300 billion vision. These oil reserves are the second biggest in the world behind Venezuela (whose reserves are also of interest to president Macron since future Russian oil supply is called into question due to the Russian war in Ukraine). At the current rate of Saudi crude oil production (11.5 million barrels per day in 2022), the Saudis could exploit their reserves for the next 70 years. Today, countries like Algeria, Kazakhstan, Libya and Nigeria each provide France with more oil than the Saudi ally. But the French political decision-makers never forget the large Saudi oil reserves. And for now, in their eyes, taking advantage of the Saudi petrodollars is fine, even if the burning of fossil fuels, oil in particular, is one of the main causes of global warming (AP, 2023; BFMTV, 2022; BP, 2021, p.16; ClientEarth, 2022; Direction générale du trésor, 2022; Insee, 2022; U.S. EIA, 2022; WMO, 2021; WPR, 2023).
Despite Emmanuel Macron’s speeches on the energy transition since 2017, France continues to consume petroleum products as if they were harmless. In 2022, my country consumed 55.5 million tons of them, that is more than in 2021, without reaching the peak of 2019 before the covid crisis (5.4 percentage point lower). Furthermore, the French consumption of road fuels has always exceeded 40 million tons per year for the last quarter of a century, with the exception of the covid year of 2020 (Élysée, 2023 [a]; MTE, 2023; Énergies et Mobilités, 2023).
If oil consumers will not run out of oil anytime soon, oil « debauchery » in the long run is no longer an option. So in France and Saudi Arabia, it is believed that the future of transport would belong to individual owners of electric vehicles. Pursuant to Vision 2030, 600 billion dollars drawn from the Saudi public investment fund will help reduce the use of gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of electric ones. Partnerships with BMW, with EV Metals for batteries (Australia), with Lucid Motors (U.S.A.) and others, could enable the Saudis to produce as many as 500,000 electric vehicles each year in 2030. The goal is to ensure the same ease of mobility for individual car owners who can afford it, at least at the same speed as today, without gasoline. Neither in France nor in the Saudi desert is there any State plan to significantly change people’s habits with their cars. Neither Emmanuel Macron nor MbS worry about the environmental impact of a global buying spree of electric vehicles. The French president publicly stated the goal of 100 percent of electric vehicles in France in twelves years. This target may be as misleading as the one set by MbS for renewable energies by 2030 (Al-Atrush, 2023; Barré et al., 2022; Birch, 2022):
E. Macron: We take full responsibility for this goal of 100 percent of electric vehicles in 2035. It is necessary to meet our climate objectives [and this is] an opportunity to boost industries in our country (Barré et al., 2022).
This presidential objective is anything but a legally binding commitment. It aims at generating a buzz in an attempt to make the president look a little « greener ».
In late 2022, echoing Emmanuel Macron’s words, MbS and his kingdom launched the first Saudi brand of electric vehicles. For MbS, this brand, named Ceer, is a way
to ignite a new industry and an ecosystem that attracts international and local investments, creates job opportunities for local talents, enables the private sector, and contributes to increasing Saudi Arabia’s GDP over the next decade (Middle East Monitor, 2022).
During the lifetime of a middle-sized car, an electric vehicle will emit between 40 and 50 percent the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a gasoline-powered vehicle, a percentage that includes manufacturing and electricity generation, but that excludes the emissions caused by the extraction of metals and minerals required to manufacture cars. With about half the emissions for electric vehicles, their future harmful environmental impact will remain high given how huge the market for electric vehicles will be (IEA, 2022).
The impact of the extraction of metals and minerals used to make these vehicles is by no means insignificant. Let’s take the example of lithium, the most sought after metal in the world today, used to make the lithium-ion battery of electric vehicles:
- Lithium mining both degrades and reduces water resources in the surrounding environment.
- It leaves behind great quantities of mineral wastes while altering the local hydrological cycle.
Considering the future magnitude of lithium mining, global lithium resources could run out pretty quickly. Today, most batteries of electric vehicles require cobalt and nickel whose extraction also pollutes the environment around mines. Because of the growing intensity of lithium extraction, production of lithium-ion batteries one hundred years from now may be either impossible or not profitable anymore, given also that their future recycling rate is very uncertain. This rate is less than 10 percent these days. There are different obstacles to the recycling of lithium from batteries, starting with a high cost, the diversity of batteries and their difficult transportation and handling. In the USA, experts say that no more than 27 percent of lithium in the batteries of electric vehicles will come from recycling in 2050 [Dunn et al., 2022, fig.2]. Lastly, both gasoline-powered and electric vehicles pollute water bodies, soils, our blood and organs because of the numerous fine particles and pollutants that tires (made of synthetic rubber) release when driving (36 milligrams of particles per kilometer for each used tire of a middle-sized car on average). Neither Emmanuel Macron nor MbS really pay attention to the serious collateral damages of the production of dozens of millions of electric vehicles in the coming years (Al-Atrush, 2023; Columbia climate school, 2023; Dunn, 2022; Dunn et al., 2022, fig.2; Emmissions Analytics, 2022; IEA, 2022; Sydney Adams, 2022).
With regard to energy and mining, Emmanuel Macron’s and MbS’s visions are close to each other as well. Uranium and nuclear power are a case in point. In 2023, as part of a governmental plan entitled « France 2030 », the French president and his government
- are getting ready to extend operating licenses for nuclear power plants that were built six decades ago;
- are about to confirm the construction of six new massive EPR2 nuclear reactor;
- are launching « a program to develop advanced small modular [nuclear] reactors » and a major national training program for nuclear power related jobs [Élysée, 2023 [b]].
For more than forty years, top-level French decision-makers have been successfully promoting a highly nuclearized France at the civil and military levels. To maintain its nuclear power capacity, France is entirely dependent upon uranium from abroad and mainly from Canada, Kazakhstan, Ouzbekistan, and Niger. The construction costs of the French nuclear infrastructure is becoming astronomic: it is now topping 170 billion euros [Isotope energy, 2021]. Nuclear power plants have provided French consumers of electricity with 60 to 80 percent of their power depending on the years since the 1980s. Emmanuel Macron and many other heads of States are willing to deplete uranium resources in the medium term considering currently known uranium reserves. Environmental disasters in case of serious nuclear accidents and the underground storage of nuclear waste that remain very toxic for centuries or more take a back seat and are considered « manageable » issues of « minor » concern (Basta!, 2023; Cyprès, 2023; Élysée, 2023 [b]; Greenpeace, 2023; Vie publique, 2022; Statista, 2022).
Uranium and nuclear energy are celebrated in the Arabian desert too, but with some differences:
- The Saudi kingdom is home to substantial uranium reserves that Saudis are bent on mining as soon as possible.
- It has not yet started the construction of its first nuclear reactor.
- The Saudis are not as radical as the French State in terms of nuclear power as a major provider of electricity. Saudi Arabia is putting a greater emphasis on solar power, at least for the next twenty years. The Saudi kingdom targets 17 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2040 (Arab News, 2022; Guercio, 2022).
In 2022, Saudi energy minister prince Abdelaziz ben Salmane hinted that his country was getting ready to mine uranium:
We have got huge reserves of uranium that we would like to exploit […]. We will bring partners to do this. We will export it. […] We will make this resource profitable (Arab News, 2022).
For several years, the French State and the French nuclear company EDF have been trying to persuade Saudi officials to let this company build the first nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. But China is another contender with a better price tag. Other than this slight inconvenience, France keeps doing its utmost to assert itself as a prominent economic partner for the Saudi kingdom. In January 2023, Emmanuel Macron sent French minister of the economy Bruno Le Maire to meet MbS in order to discuss bilateral economic affairs between the two States. Just two months before, in this context of a Franco-Saudi relationship in its heyday, oil companies TotalEnergies (France) and Aramco (Saudi Arabia) agreed to invest 11 billion dollars to build a new petrochemical facility on Arabian lands. TotalEnergies and French consumers will thus be able to buy some of the cheapest petroleum products on the market. In March 2023, Emmanuel Macron and MbS talked to each other on the phone and « welcomed the dynamism of their bilateral relationship », contemplating « strengthened cooperation, notably in terms of defense and energy ». In a seemingly perfect harmony, the French president invited MbS once again in his presidential palace in June 2023. He stressed France’s determination « to support the strengthening of Saudi Arabia’s defence capability » and, once again, « the willingness of French companies to support Saudi Arabia in the implementation of the ambitious Vision 2030 » (, 2023; Arab News, 2023; Gaveriaux, 2023; Les Echos, 2022; L’Orient – Le jour, 2023).
Despite very different life courses, French president Emmanuel Macron and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have a lot in common in terms of their vision for the future. In fact, they do not see much farther than a rather near future:
- where the CEOs of huge companies, the extremely wealthy, large banks and the political ruling class unite in order to set the agenda;
- where, in the 21st century just like « in the good old days », petrodollars keep on playing a key economic role;
- where countries still overexploit underground resources such as lithium and uranium, with the goal to change almost nothing in a high energy-consuming lifestyle, mobile to the extreme (for those who can afford it) and predominantly urban, elements that cannot but be harmful to the environment;
- where the two statesmen belong to the architects of such a future, through the control of key funding sources and armed forces, and through their clever use of law.
In spite of appearances, the two men are not so far apart from each other politically. If they do have different ways to achieve their goals, neither is reluctant to force the population to adjust to their purposes:
- MbS, as a de facto ruler of a repressive kingdom, can pretty much eliminate any political opposition as he sees fit.
- Emmanuel Macron takes full advantage of existing French (and sometimes European) laws to impose his vision, although his political party has won over a minority of the French electorate. He implicitly threatens to lawfully resort to the use of force in case of popular uprising against his presidential purposes.
And then of course, Emmanuel Macron and MbS are both attracted by a luxury that only an extraordinarily wealthy neo-aristocracy can afford, oftentimes wealthier than even the richest lords before the French revolution. Emmanuel Macron is all the more tolerant of the extravagant expenses of MbS in France (a €400 million yacht near Marseille, plus a €300 million castle in Louvenciennes near Paris) that he himself admires the French luxury industry and its glittering symbols: In June of 2021, the French president put aside other tasks in order to inaugurate a luxury store in Paris. His owner is Bernard Arnault, the richest man in the world and CEO of LVMH, one of the world leaders in the luxury industry. The store that Macron inaugurated (la Samaritaine) offers 600 luxury brands, as well as a high end restaurant and hotel. During this « event », Emmanuel Macron touted « a French art of living here » and « the excellence » of LVMH (Fashion network, 2021; Hubbard, 2020, p. 5, 41).
Could our French president someday become a VIP for a prestigious international company, the managing director of the International monetary fund or the president of the European commission? He will assuredly be spoilt for choice. In the meantime, as a good toady expecting a reward, Emmanuel Macron can enjoy the payoff of « the warm reception » that, according to MbS himself, he offered him during his official visit in France in 2022. Images of their meeting in June 2023 sent a similar message (Prati, 2022).
Note about the recent evolution of Saudi involvement in Yemen (June 2023)
Saudi Arabia has been increasingly weary of its costly and rather fruitless involvement in the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is partly responsible for hundreds of thousands of war casualties. For more than eight years, the Saudi kingdom militarily supported the Yemeni ruling regime against a rebellion led by the Houthi minority (see part 1). The latter controls a large portion of southwestern Yemen, including Sana’a, its capital. During the Spring of 2023, Saudi officials met with Houthi and Iranian counterparts (given that Iran supports the Houthis) in order to talk about a potential agreement with the objective to put an end to hostilities. However, it is too soon to assert that the Saudis and the other parties involved in the conflict will sign a sustainable agreement, one that would not only end the war, but also stop a blockade that has caused so much suffering within the Yemeni population (Juneau, 2023).
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AP, 2023. Saudis to cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day. Weblink accessed on 6/29/2023.
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