France has been accused of devaluing its highest national honour after the Legion of Honour was quietly awarded to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on a visit to Paris.
The French government was among the most vocal outside the Middle East in its condemnation of Saudi mass executions earlier this year, calling the kingdom’s killing of 47 people “deeply deplorable”.
Yet almost two months to the day after that statement was issued, President François Hollande awarded his nation’s most prestigious award to the heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Naif.
The Crown Prince’s visit to the Elysee Palace actually took place on Friday 4 March, the same day as Mr Hollande held talks with Angela Merkel about how to cope with the refugee crisis.
But while Ms Merkel’s trip featured in a number of videos and photos posted online by the Elysee social media team, any reference or evidence of the Saudi delegation was conspicuously absent.
That the Prince even received the award was only confirmed by Mr Hollande’s entourage on Sunday afternoon. Officials sought to play it down, telling Le Monde it was “common protocol” to issue visiting dignitaries with the honour.
But while in France the decoration was done, as media outlets put it, “with discretion”, the government-owned Saudi news agency SPA hailed the honour as recognition for the prince’s “great efforts in the region and world for combating extremism and terrorism”.
The Legion of Honour was founded by Napoleon in 1802, and is regarded as among the first and most prestigious modern orders of merit in the world.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
Last week, before the Crown Prince received his from the order’s Grand Master Hollande personally, it was awarded to groups of World War Two veterans in Cornwall and Oxfordshire in recognition of their role in the D-Day landings.
In both France and the UK, there was anger on Sunday night at the decision to award the symbolically significant medal to the deputy leader of a country which has executed 70 people since the start of the year.
Twitter user Carmen Renieri called it a “day of shame for France”, while Jane Grover wrote that the decoration “makes the legion d’honneur worthless”.
In its report from the Crown Prince’s visit, SPA said the two sides “reviewed bilateral relations between the Kingdom and France and ways of enhancing and developing them in all fields, particularly joint cooperation for combating extremism and terrorism”.
“The French President and the Crown Prince also discussed the latest developments in the Middle East and exerted efforts towards them in addition to the two countries stances towards them,” it said.
The visit was a “success”, said Saudi minister of culture and information Adel al-Toraifi, and included discussions of “investment”.
Neither report made mention of the refugee crisis, throughout which Saudi Arabia been accused of failing to take its fair share of asylum seekers. And given the “discretion” surrounding the visit, it is not known whether Mr Hollande felt able to bring up the Saudi human rights record.