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Sensemaker: French connections

Sensemaker: French connections

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK’s Labour Party demanded an apology after ITV found footage of Downing Street officials laughing about a Christmas party they deny took place last year.
  • Australia joined the US diplomatic boycott of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. 
  • The UAE moved its weekend from Friday to Saturday to Saturday to Sunday to align itself more closely with global markets, starting next year. 

French connections

Today, a story in two probably unconnected parts about France and Saudi Arabia: democracy and the rule of law. 

Part 1: the arrest. On Tuesday French border police at Charles de Gaulle airport arrested a man named as Khaled Aedh al-Otabi, on suspicion of being a party to the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and dissident. 

If the French have the right man he would be the first suspect in the murder to be arrested outside Saudi Arabia. He could face extradition and trial in Turkey, where Khashoggi was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, welcomed the announcement but Saudi officials say it’s a case of mistaken identity. There’s room for doubt, and French police were wobbling last night. Al-Otabi, 33, was traveling under his own name, about to board a plane to Riyadh. He’s been identified by UN investigators as both a personal security officer for Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince also known as MBS, and a member of the group that killed Khashoggi. 

But two other men with the same surname were involved, according to The Killing in the Consulate, a book on the murder by the former Channel 4 foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman:

  • Mohammad al-Otaibi, the Saudi consul general in Istanbul, who flew back to Saudi Arabia soon after the murder; and
  • Badr Lafi al-Otaibi, a major in Saudi foreign intelligence thought to be a member of the hit squad that flew in a day before it. 

There were two al-Otaibis in the hit squad and the consul general was a third, Rugman says. “The one they think they have arrested was at the residence, around the corner from the killing – and is accused of concealing evidence there. Probably the body parts. It is possible the French have made a mistake.” 

A Saudi court sentenced five men to death for what Riyadh says was a rogue operation. The CIA says MBS ordered it. 

Part 2: the glad hand. French police follow the evidence, not government orders, and of course it was up to Mr al-Otaibi when to try to fly to Riyadh. Still, the arrest was a handy distraction for President Macron three days after he became the first western leader to meet MBS on Saudi soil since the murder. 

Macron was on a swing through the Gulf with high reputational risk and – he seems to have judged – higher material reward:

  • He signed a record €14 billion deal to deliver 80 French fighter jets to the UAE, which Human Rights Watch noted has played a prominent role in Saudi’s war on Yemen. 
  • His meeting with MBS was condemned by Amnesty International as an attempt to rehabilitate a killer. But it will, he hopes, mean Saudi reconstruction funds start flowing to Lebanon. 

Macron is under fire from left and right at home as rivals prepare to contest his re-election next year. His image as a global statesman took a knock when Australia, the US and the UK formed Aukus behind his back in September. He wants to polish up that image to set himself apart from the pack, but it’s not clear cosying up to MBS will help.

As for Khaled Aedh al-Otabi, he appears before a Paris magistrate today – a reminder of disinterested French law enforcement but also of an unforgivable atrocity. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Rape in London
There are few surprises in the London Rape Review, a study of rape cases fronted by the capital’s independent victim commissioner, Claire Waxman. Most cases don’t go to trial. Victims often know the perpetrator, are young women and disproportionately black. But there are some details of note. For one, a marked increase in the speed at which victims withdrew their cases (64 per cent withdrew within 30 days, up from 7 per cent in 2019) and a decrease in cases reaching trial (1 per cent went to trial in 2021 – a 5 percentage point drop). Police procedure and digital evidence requests were specifically flagged as reasons for withdrawing cases. “Digital strip searching” was scrapped last year – but victims still said requests for technology evidence (translation: access to phones) were intrusive and unnecessary and that they felt their “behaviour and credibility were being scrutinised”. Waxman told LBC current police procedure “effectively decriminalises rape”. The Met have made commitments to work more closely with the CPS to change this. They have a long way to go. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Nord Stream threat
Biden told Putin yesterday he would lean on Germany to block the use of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine. White House officials had briefed before the two leaders’ two-hour crisis call that the US was ready to use economic measures it hadn’t used when Putin annexed Crimea, but the Nord Stream 2 threat is more than merely economic. The pipeline has been a decade in the making and has become a symbol of Russian energy leverage even though no gas has flowed through it yet. Gas sold through older pipes has insulated the Russian state from the effects of sanctions, and Nord Stream 2 promises a fresh source of power as well as revenue. Biden’s national security advisor said after the call that if Putin wants to see gas flow through the pipeline “he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine”. First, though, the US has to persuade Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to play ball.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Suns reunited
A Chinese teenager reunited with his biological family 14 years after being abducted has said he’d rather stay with his adoptive parents. Sun Zhuo, 18, was abducted 14 years ago aged four. His biological father, who had used his food stall for the intervening years as a noticeboard for requests for information about his missing son, wept as they were reunited, but Sun said his adoptive family had been very kind to him. During the 35-year span of China’s one-child policy, tens of thousands of young children were abducted from their families to meet a demand for babies – usually boys – from couples who couldn’t have their own. Sun was one of three of reunited with their biological families this week as part of a campaign by the Ministry of Public Security that has so far traced more than 8,000 children. The Times says it’s unclear if Sun’s adoptive parents will be prosecuted. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Reef growth
Rumours of the death of the Great Barrier Reef appear to have been exaggerated. Baby corals grown in vitro – or at least in protected pools and tanks under the watchful eye of scientists – have bloomed successfully following their implantation among mature corals at 22 sites off Australia’s east coast. We reported two years ago on this experimental approach to rescuing reefs damaged or dying because of climate change, and the signs are that it can work. Whether it can work along the reef’s full 1400-mile length is another matter. So is the reef’s outlook if average ocean temperatures and acidity go on up. As if the GBR didn’t have enough to contend with, the growth-at-any-cost government of Scott Morrison is waging a determined campaign not to have it designated by Unesco as endangered, for fear that once in that category it might never get out. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Commodity traffiging
Forget the Covid demand slump. Forget the Cop call on our environmental consciences. This has been a great year to be an oil and gas trader, and an even better one to be expanding into exotic metals used in batteries. Trafigura, the Swiss-based commodity trading firm, nearly doubled its profits to $3.1 billion, and handed more than $1 billion of that to its executives and staff, the FT reports. The volume of oil and petroleum products it handled grew by a quarter, but the kicker was metals and minerals: volume was up by 7.5 per cent but profits were up by 95 per cent. This is what happens when the world lurches for cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel and you sit in the seat marked “middleman”. 

And finally… the launch of a journalism prize close to our collective heart: an annual fellowship in investigative journalism sponsored by the Sir Harry Evans Memorial Fund and in memory of Sir Harry – one of the great reporters and editors of his generation. He edited the Sunday Times, championed diversity and was an inspiration for Tortoise. The fellows will work from the Reuters newsroom and the first one will be appointed next year. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images