DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — French President Emmanuel Macron made a surprise trip on Thursday night to Saudi Arabia, saying he wanted to speak to the kingdom’s young, assertive crown prince about Iran and the war in Yemen.
Macron said he made the decision earlier in the morning about heading to Saudi Arabia, in part over Shiite rebels in Yemen launching a ballistic missile that targeted Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital. He bluntly blamed Iran for the attack, saying that while he still supported Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, a new agreement needed to be reached over Iran’s missile program.
“The missile which was intercepted by Saudi Arabia launched from Yemen, which obviously is an Iranian missile, shows precisely the strength of their” program, Macron told journalists at a news conference held at a French school in Dubai.
Iranian state media did not immediately report the remarks. Iranian officials, while backing the Shiite rebels known as Houthis in Yemen, have denied directly arming them.
Macron met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman late Thursday night and “expressed France’s condemnation of targeting Riyadh city by a ballistic missile,” according to a report on the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The ballistic missile launched Saturday night flew near Riyadh’s international airport before Saudi officials said they shot it down. By early Monday, the kingdom responded by closing off Yemen’s land, sea and air ports and warning Iran the rebel missile launch could be “considered as an act of war.”
“I believe it’s important that we work with Saudi Arabia for the purpose of guaranteeing stability in the region and the fight against terrorism,” Macron also said in the UAE.
Macron noticeably did not mention Saudi King Salman in his remarks Thursday night and Saudi officials reported no meeting between the two. It suggests France believes the king’s 32-year-old son, Prince Mohammed, now controls the levers of power in the kingdom amid rumors his father may abdicate.
Macron also was careful not to criticize an ongoing campaign of arrests in the kingdom in what it describes as an anti-corruption push. Saudi critics and experts have called the unprecedented purge of top princes and businessmen a bold and risky move by the crown prince aimed at consolidating his control of the oil-rich, ultraconservative nation.
“If we were to walk away from it, it would lead to either immediate war or an absence of control which would inevitably lead to a North Korean-situation, which I could not accept,” Macron said.
The surprise trip to Saudi Arabia came at the end of a two-day trip by Macron to the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.
After focusing Wednesday on cultural ties between France and the UAE with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Macron on Thursday toured a nearby French naval base and discussed the military cooperation between the two nations.
Macron visited the Camp Peace naval base at Abu Dhabi’s Port Zayed, which sits just across the waters of the Persian Gulf from the new Louvre. The museum’s saltshaker-like dome sits in sight of the base.
A military band played “La Marseillaise” and an honor guard met Macron before he boarded and walked through the French frigate Jean Bart.
The French president later addressed gathered sailors there, noting their work to both battle extremists and stop smugglers and piracy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters.
“We have won in Raqqa and in the coming weeks, the coming months, I believe it strongly, we will completely win on the military level in the Iraqi-Syrian zone,” Macron said, referring to the one-time self-described capital of the Islamic State group that fell last month to the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
“France’s military capacity is at the heart of my ambitions for our country,” he added.
The French naval base opened in 2009, a reflection of France’s deepening military cooperation with the UAE. Macron later said some 700 French troops stay on the base.
France also stations troops and planes at Al-Dhafra Air Base, home to some of the 5,000 American troops stationed in the country.
On the cultural front, Abu Dhabi agreed to pay France $525 million for the use of the “Louvre” name for the next 30 years and six months for its new museum, plus another $750 million to hire French managers to oversee the 300 loaned works of art. A center at Paris’ Louvre now bears the name of the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, which was also part of the deal.
While Macron toured the naval base, his wife Brigitte visited Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, its gleaming white marble minarets and walls shining brightly in the desert sun. Out of respect, she covered her head with a brown, white and black scarf with an Arabic-inspired design while touring the mosque, walking across its carpeting with her bare feet.
Macron then traveled to Dubai and met with ruling Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as the UAE’s vice president and prime minister. Sheikh Mohammed also had attended the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening Wednesday night.
The French president then attended an economic forum, where he offered a speech in English applauding the Emirates’ efforts in fighting those “betraying” Islam through both military might, as well as its cultural offerings.
“Our common challenge today is how to defend light, tolerance and respect of each other,” Macron said. “That’s the challenge of our generation.”