Smiles, handshakes, backslaps and the Acropolis all to himself. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has landed in Europe – his first trip west since the brutal killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and on a continent jittering with energy worries, the Saudi royal has received red-carpet treatment.
Human rights concerns aside, the de facto leader of the world’s greatest oil producer has luxuriated in a welcome that only recently may have seemed impossible.
Three years after Khashoggi’s murder, Greece made clear this week that politicians would rather talk about energy than the star journalist dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
“We are deeply honoured that his Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman decided to visit Greece as his first trip to an EU country since 2018,” Athens’ development minister, Adonis Georgiadis, told Arab News before the crown prince flew in on Tuesday. “This is very important to Greece and very important to our relationship because we honour and admire his leadership, his vision for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the way the kingdom is progressing to the new era of humanity in renewable energy, and new technology.”
Bilateral ties were so excellent, the Greek politician said, that in an unprecedented step a cultural accord would be signed at the Acropolis Museum within view of the 5th-century BC masterpiece.
“This has never happened before,” he enthused. “We have never signed an MOU 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 feel that you are something very exceptional to us.”
In the space of 48 hours, 17 bilateral agreements have been signed in the birthplace of democracy, including one that foresees the installation of an electricity cable between the two countries that would, the prince pledged, provide Europe “with much cheaper energy”.
The Athens trip, part of a two-leg tour on which the crown prince will also visit Paris, highlights the extent to which the west now wants to engage with Riyadh after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped send oil prices rocketing.
It comes less than two weeks after the US president, Joe Biden, visited the kingdom he had previously described as a pariah – not least because of its role in Khashoggi’s assassination – with the Democrat shocking human rights defenders by greeting Bin Salman with a fist bump. US intelligence services had concluded unequivocally that the Saudi royal had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, despite Riyadh’s claims that rogue operatives were behind it.
For the 36-year-old prince, the Greek sojourn has marked the beginning of a rehabilitation process 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 leaders of Greece and France “to discuss bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in various fields as well as a number of issues of common interest”.
No detail has reputedly been too small for Bin Salman, who arrived in Athens with a 700-strong delegation on seven planes – one reportedly decked out as a hospital in waiting. In a report describing the crown prince’s penchants and excesses, the Greek news portal iefimerida said 350 limousines had been requested by the mission – a demand that so outstripped supply that vehicles had to be brought in from Bulgaria and Germany.
For his stay at the Four Seasons on the Athenian riviera, 180 suitcases filled with clothes, shoes and other personal items had been sent to the hotel. “A few days ago a special order arrived for bulletproof glass panes, which were installed with a giant crane in the suite Bin Salman has taken over,” iefimerida reported on Wednesday.
So worried was the prince about being poisoned, the media outlet added, that he had refused all invitations to eat outside the hotel, bar the ceremony at the Acropolis Museum following a night tour of the site personally given by the culture minister.
For those who follow the House of Saud, the prince’s stay in Europe is replete with importance. Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University, Houston, described it as “a highly symbolic move past his post-Khashoggi isolation”.