Saudi effort to restore international stature culminates at G20 summit
LONDON - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz returned to the international stage at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina. The reception he received in Buenos Aires seemed to vindicate his bet on international outreach to overcome the reputational damage that Riyadh had to deal with since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October.
The 33-year-old heir to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met with world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, while at the G20.
Putin greeted Crown Prince Mohammed warmly and the two men were seen laughing and joking during the opening leaders’ session. Video of the initial hearty handshake between Putin and the crown prince went viral on social media.
A White House statement said Trump “exchanged pleasantries” with Crown Prince Mohammed at the same meeting. Saudi state media described interactions between the two as “friendly.”
Trump has repeatedly highlighted the importance of US-Saudi relations, pointing to a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom and Riyadh’s important role in advancing Washington’s policies in the Middle East, particularly through countering terrorism and confronting Iran.
The crown prince also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Saudi Foreign Ministry published a photograph of the two men shaking hands and smiling broadly.
“China firmly supports Saudi Arabia in its drive for economic diversification and social reform and will continue to stick together with Saudi Arabia on issues involving their core interests,” China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying.
There had been fears that world leaders would distance themselves from Crown Prince Mohammed following the furore over Khashoggi’s death by what Riyadh claims was a rogue operation involving officials who exceeded orders to question the journalist. Investigations into Khashoggi’s killing continue and Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor has charged 11 people in relation to the death.
Crown Prince Mohammed flew to Buenos Aires following a whistle-stop regional tour that took him to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, where he received warm welcomes. There were protests in Tunis about the crown prince’s visit but they were overshadowed by the warm reception extended by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Khashoggi’s death has become the centrepiece in a regional tug of war between Saudi Arabia and its allies and rivals Qatar and Turkey, which have exploited the killing in an attempt to turn global public opinion against Riyadh.
“No one can deny that, by visiting Argentina and four other countries on the way there, [Crown Prince Mohammed] has neutralised the designs of Saudi Arabia’s enemies. He has not withdrawn from public life or avoided confronting the challenges he faces,” said Saudi columnist and former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel Abdulrahman al-Rashed.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s participation at the G20 — his first international appearance outside the Middle East since October — was closely watched by international media.
The G20 summit is a meeting of representatives of the world’s largest economies that has been taking place each year since the 2008 global financial crisis. The group was founded in 1999 by the Group of Seven with the aim of providing developing countries with a voice regarding the global economy and to coordinate and prioritise global financial stability.
The summit in Buenos Aires was an optimal setting for the Saudi crown prince to return to the international scene, especially with China-US trade tensions dominating the meeting. Issues such as migration and climate change were also on the agenda at a particularly fractious time in global politics.
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri opened the summit with a call for world leaders to work together. “The essence of the G20 is to foster dialogue while respecting differences and we hope to lay the foundation for consensus for the next 10 years,” he said.
“Many people look at us and have doubts regarding these summits and what they’re good for. It is our duty to show to the world that today global challenges require global responses,” he added.