France has demanded transparency from Saudi Arabia following accusations that the kingdom covered up a possible terrorist attack that seriously injured a French competitor in the Dakar car rally last month.
“We told the organisers and the Saudi officials to be very transparent on what had happened because there were hypothesis that it was a terrorist attack,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM TV and RMC Radio on Friday.
“There was perhaps a terrorist attack targeting the Dakar Rally.”
Saudi Arabia’s Public Security Department said on January 1 that “preliminary evidence-gathering procedures found no criminal suspicion” for the blast that hit a support vehicle belonging to French team Sodicars.
The explosion, which occurred outside a hotel in Jeddah last month, seriously injured driver Philippe Boutron, who was flown back to France and placed in a medically induced coma.
On Tuesday French prosecutors opened a terrorism investigation into the matter.
Mr Le Drian said France believed the rally should have been cancelled and that French investigators intended to visit Saudi Arabia.
“In these circumstances, one needs to be very precautionary,” he said.
Team Sodicars believes it was the victim of a terrorist attack and accused Saudi authorities of covering up the incident.
“We must tell the truth. It was an attack, and not an accident as the Saudi authorities are trying to maintain. There was a bomb in the side rail of the vehicle, under the pedals,” a Sodicars spokesperson told journalists.
Mr Le Drian’s comments are likely to antagonise Saudi Arabia, which has hosted the famous car race for the past three years.
While the kingdom was the scene of numerous attacks against Western targets in the 2000s, de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has implemented a series of reforms aimed at reducing the power of the Wahhabist religious establishment.
A pillar of these reforms has been the introduction of public entertainment to the previously austere country, including car races, music concerts, and wrestling events, as well as the introduction of tourism visas.
The Crown Prince’s reforms have proven popular with the youth but have not been universally embraced by religious conservatives, though dissent is tightly controlled.
In November 2020, the Islamic State group claimed an responsibility for an explosion that injured several people at an Armistice day ceremony at the non-Muslim cemetery in Jeddah while the French consul general was giving a speech.
A month earlier, a Saudi man was arrested after attacking and wounding a security guard at the French consulate in Jeddah.