Smiles, handshakes, backslaps and the Acropolis all to himself. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman landed in Europe – his first trip west since the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and on a continent shivering with energy worries, the Saudi royal received red carpet treatment.
Beyond human rights concerns, the de facto leader of the world’s largest oil producer has enjoyed a welcome that until recently might have seemed impossible.
Three years after Khashoggi’s murder, Greece clarified this week that politicians would rather talk about energy than about the star journalist dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
“We are deeply honored that His Royal Highness Mohammad bin Salman has decided to visit Greece for his first trip to an EU country since 2018,” Athens Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis told Arab News. ahead of the Crown Prince’s arrival on Tuesday. “It is very important for Greece and very important for our relationship because we honor and admire his leadership, his vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the way the Kingdom is moving towards the new era of humanity in the renewable energies and new technologies.
Bilateral relations were so excellent, the Greek politician said, that in an unprecedented step, a cultural agreement would be signed at the Acropolis Museum on view of the 5th-century BC masterpiece.
“This has never happened before,” he enthused. “We have never signed a Memorandum of Understanding with any other country in the world in the Acropolis Museum and this is a gesture from our government, from our Prime Minister to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to show how we think you are something very exceptional for us.”
In the space of 48 hours, 17 bilateral agreements have been signed in the cradle of democracy, including one which provides for the installation of an electric cable between the two countries which would allow, the prince pledged, to supply Europe “much cheaper energy”.
The trip to Athens, which is part of a two-leg tour in which the crown prince will also visit Paris, underlines how much the West now wants to engage with Riyadh after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has helped to skyrocket oil prices.
It comes less than two weeks after US President Joe Biden visited the kingdom he previously described as a pariah – not least because of his role in Khashoggi’s assassination – the Democrat shocking advocates of human rights by greeting Bin Salman with a fist. . US intelligence had unequivocally concluded that the Saudi royal family “approved” of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, despite Riyadh’s claims that rogue agents were behind it.
For the 36-year-old prince, the Greek stay marked the start of a process of rehabilitation that Riyadh hopes will end years of self-imposed exile.
In a statement released in Jeddah, the Saudi royal court said the crown prince would meet the Greek and French leaders “to discuss bilateral relations and ways to improve them in various fields as well as a number of issues of interest. common”.
No detail was deemed too small for Bin Salman, who arrived in Athens with a delegation of 700 people on seven planes – one of which was reportedly set up as a standby hospital. In a report outlining the crown prince’s inclinations and excesses, Greek news portal iefimerida said 350 limousines had been requested by the mission – a demand so outstripping supply that vehicles had to be brought in from Bulgaria and from Germany.
For his stay at the Four Seasons on the Athens Riviera, 180 suitcases filled with clothes, shoes and other personal effects had been sent to the hotel. “A few days ago, a special order arrived for bulletproof glass, which was installed with a giant crane in the suite that Bin Salman took over,” iefimerida reported on Wednesday.
The prince was so worried about being poisoned, the outlet added, that he had refused all invitations to eat outside the hotel, except for the ceremony at the Acropolis museum following a night visit to the site personally given by the Minister of Culture.
For those who follow the House of Saud, the prince’s stay in Europe is full of significance. Kristian Ulrichsen, a researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, described it as “a highly symbolic passage beyond his post-Khashoggi isolation.”