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December 5, 2018 8:44 am

Saudi Prince Leaves G-20 Confident and Bolstered After Khashoggi Murder

avatar by James M. Dorsey

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US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, March 20, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst / File.

First there was a high-five from Vladimir Putin. Then, for Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, it was business as usual.

At home, Saudi Arabia’s media trumpeted Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s meetings with world leaders, tweeting pictures of his encounters, which also included the presidents of South Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

However, Western leaders appeared to avoid the crown prince during the family photo at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires after almost two months of global outrage at the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The only Arab leader there, the prince sometimes stood rather isolated at the end of the line, at times looking uncertain and nervous. US President Donald Trump, Prince Muhammad’s most vocal backer, did grant him an official meeting. And Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri kept the prince hanging on when it came to finding time to talk.

During an informal conversation on the sidelines of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron was overheard admonishing Muhammad, saying that he “never listened,” while the crown prince tried to assure him that “it’s OK.” French officials later said the men were discussing the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as the war in Yemen.

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Similarly, British Prime Minister Theresa May opted to focus on those two topics rather than economics and trade as her country struggles with the uncertainty of Brexit. May insisted that Riyadh needed “to build confidence that such a deplorable incident could not happen again,” referring to the Saudi team sent to Turkey to murder Khashoggi.

The message Prince Muhammad probably took home from the G-20 summit was that illiberal, authoritarian, and autocratic leaders were happy to do business with the kingdom and the crown prince despite persistent assertions that he ordered the killing. Similarly, Donald Trump and other Western leaders appeared to play to public opinion while doing nothing to threaten their relations with the kingdom. The US president also chose not to have a formal meeting with Prince Muhammad’s foremost detractor, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The crown prince may also have been heartened that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada — with which Saudi Arabia had a diplomatic row earlier this year — was the only leader to raise the Khashoggi issue during the G-20’s formal proceedings. Other US allies made clear that the kingdom’s financial largess and willingness to guarantee the flow of oil would go a long way towards ensuring they would choose realism over principle. The Saudi Press Agency reported after Muhammad’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Modi that the crown prince had pledged to meet India’s oil and petroleum product needs.

By attending the G-20 summit, Prince Muhammad may have achieved his goal of showing that Saudi Arabia — and specifically he himself — remains a player despite the storm still raging around Khashoggi’s death. But he is not out of the woods yet. The kingdom, eager to project itself as a regional and world power, has suffered significant damage to its reputation that will take time and hard work to repair. Just how hard depends on whether the US Congress decides to sanction Riyadh, if the Europeans follow suit, and if Turkey succeeds in pushing for an international investigation into the killing.

“We have never seen Khashoggi’s murder as a political issue,” Erdoğan told a news conference in Buenos Aires. “For Turkey, the incident is and will remain a flagrant murder within the Islamic world. International public opinion will not be satisfied until all those responsible for his death are revealed.” He described Saudi Arabia’s response to the killing as “unbelievable.”

The US Senate, meanwhile, pushed forward last week — despite opposition from Trump — with a resolution that would end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a conflict that has caused a major humanitarian crisis. Prince Muhammad’s case was also not helped by the leak of a CIA report saying he sent 11 messages to Saud al-Qahtani, a former close aide, at the time Khashoggi was killed. Qahtani has been accused of overseeing the killing, and was fired from his position as Muhammad’s adviser and information czar. He has also been sanctioned by Washington.

The CIA claims Prince Muhammad told associates in August 2017 that they “could possibly lure [Khashoggi] outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements” if the Washington Post columnist refused to return to the kingdom from the US. Recent reports reveal that after a CIA briefing, many Republican senators dispute Trump’s view of the situation, and view the crown price as responsible for or complicit in the murder.

Nevertheless, the G-20 summit suggests that Prince Muhammad and his kingdom may have taken their first step towards putting the Khashoggi affair behind them. Even if US lawmakers slap sanctions on the kingdom, the prince is likely to remain secure in his position as king-in-waiting. And keeping Khashoggi in the headlines will prove increasingly difficult, as it seems much of the world has signaled that it is moving on.

Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture. BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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