Ghost of Khashoggi haunts Saudi prince as frosty G-20 awaits
Bin Salman is on a tour to boost his reputation, but he faces being treated as an outcast by world leaders
Once feted on the world stage, Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince faces the cold shoulder abroad as he struggles to shrug off the lingering stigma of a critical journalist’s murder.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been on an Arab tour before he attends the Group of 20 summit in Argentina on Friday, where he faces world leaders who have strongly condemned Jamal Khashoggi’s killing last month in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
The country’s de facto ruler has brushed aside the international pressure, attempting to use the overseas visits – followed by a whirlwind domestic tour – to shore up his tarnished reputation and reinforce relationships with allies.
“The question is who among global leaders will agree to stand with him publicly,” said HA Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“I suspect his appearances will be carefully staged to avoid embarrassment.”
The prince faces the grim prospect of being treated as an “outcast” by some leaders at the two-day G-20 summit, said Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo.
“Group photos may be unavoidable, but liberal democratic leaders from countries such as Germany and Canada will not want to be seen shaking his hand,” Momani said.
Former Spanish King Juan Carlos faced scathing domestic criticism over his handshake with the prince in Abu Dhabi, his first stop in a regional tour which also included close allies Bahrain and Egypt as well as Tunisia.
An image of the laughter-filled encounter at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last Sunday was described by a conservative Spanish daily as “the photo of shame”.
But the 33-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, used the regional tour as something of a victory lap after US President Donald Trump – who has praised Saudi Arabia as a “truly spectacular ally” – threw his weight behind him.
Trump’s emphatic support came despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s reported assessment that the prince – who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government – was behind the killing.
“It should come as no surprise that allies like Trump, China’s Xi (Jinping) and Russia’s (Vladimir) Putin will have no qualms in signalling that they are absolutely fine to continue doing business with MBS,” said Momani.
But some officials in the prince’s entourage are bracing for a frosty reception at the G-20 summit.
Ahead of the prince’s visit, Human Rights Watch urged Argentinian prosecutors to consider bringing criminal charges against Bin Salman over alleged war crimes in a brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen and his possible complicity in Khashoggi’s murder.
It was unclear whether Argentinian prosecutors would act on the request.
Trump also faces growing pressure from US lawmakers, some of whom are demanding a probe into his financial ties to determine whether the president has any vested interest in backing the kingdom.
The prince’s supporters fear that world leaders could leverage his weakened international position to gain concessions from the kingdom, as it struggles with a slump in oil prices.
The prince is expected to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has kept international pressure mounting on the kingdom by saying the orders for Khashoggi’s killing came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government.
“In the event Erdogan meets with MBS on the sidelines of G-20, it will be indicative that some sort of a deal has been reached, which could include Gulf reconciliation and concrete steps on how to wind down the war in Yemen,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst based in Washington.
“However, a potential Saudi-Turkish deal is unlikely to shield MBS from US Congressional investigations into the Khashoggi murder.”
‘He’s here to stay’
In a foretaste of expected acrimony at G-20, the prince faced hundreds of protesters on Tuesday during a brief stopover in Tunisia, with many shouting “Go away assassin!” and some clutching red-stained chainsaws – a reference to Khashoggi’s gruesome murder.
The hostility stands in stark contrast to the prince’s month-long tour of the US earlier this year, where he received something of a rock-star reception and hobnobbed with business titans such as Disney chief Bob Iger and Apple’s Tim Cook.
In PR-slicked campaigns, the prince had marketed himself as a liberaliser seeking to remake his conservative petro-state, while amassing power to a degree unseen by previous rulers.
The global fallout over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist critical of the prince, appears to have torpedoed that effort.
But it has not so far threatened to unseat the prince amid his tightening grip on military and security agencies and a ruthless crackdown on political rivals.
The prince’s supporters say the fact that he stepped out of the kingdom amid a crisis is an indication that he is firmly in control.
“The prince is trying to show his domestic and international audience that he’s leaving the palace and confident he’ll return to control it,” said Momani.
“He wants to show he’s here to stay for decades as the next ruler of Saudi Arabia.”