G20 Summit: The Saudi Crown Prince’s Diplomatic Test

This weekend, from Friday, November 30th to Sunday, December 2nd, the annual G20 summit has been taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The summit marked the Saudi Crown Prince’s first major international diplomatic test since the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, on October 2nd. Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is often referred to by the media, has been side-lined by many of the politicians, however he has not been completely outcast as a political pariah as most countries acknowledge the need to maintain a relationship with Saudi Arabia for trade and intelligence links.

Host President, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, opened the summit with a call for ‘dialogue, dialogue and dialogue.’ European Council President, Donald Tusk, similarly told journalists that he wishes to ‘appeal to the leaders to use this summit, including their bilateral and informal exchanges, to seriously discuss real issues.’ Many leaders did meet with MbS in some capacity to discuss trade deals, the situation in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi, including the United Kingdom’s Theresa May and China’s President Xi Jinping. Microphones and cameras recorded part of a five-minute discussion between MbS and French President Macron, during which Macron states ‘I am worried…you never listen to me,’ with the Saudi Prince replying that ‘no, I listen to you, of course.’ The topic remains unclear but French officials say that Macron was ‘very firm’ regarding both the murder and the war in Yemen. Meanwhile, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was seen to enthusiastically high-five MbS with a smile. During the ‘family portrait’ of the G20 leaders, MbS was isolated on the far-side of the frame, far from Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan.

This balance that many international politicians are choosing to follow, of continued conversation with the Saudi crown prince whilst confronting him head on about the Khashoggi case, is the most appropriate in these difficult circumstances. Khashoggi deserves justice. It remains highly plausible that the Saudi prince was involved in some capacity in his murder, and that the Saudi government could now be covering up and fabricating stories to mask the truth about what happened. For this reason, political leaders must remain cautious in addressing him and ensure that he does not believe that there are to be no international political repercussions for the murder. However, with the situation in Yemen in particular requiring conversations between MbS and other leaders, it would be inappropriate and counterproductive to completely cut him out of the political scene at the G20 summit and beyond.

Khasshogi, a Saudi journalist and known dissident of the Saudi government, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd. Saudi Arabia initially denied any involvement or knowledge of his disappearance, but later admitted he had been killed when a member of the intelligence team diverted from the plan to bring Khashoggi back to the Gulf region. The G20 summit is the Crown Prince’s first major gathering of international political leaders since the murder, and his attending the summit in itself was a calculated risk. The summit, made up of nineteen of the world’s most industrialized powers plus the EU, is an annual opportunity for leaders to develop global policies tackling major issues, with many decisions made one-to-one. In 2018, other key topics have included tensions with Putin over a recent clash with Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov and the USMCA trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

International leaders must continue to investigate Khashoggi’s death until the truth is proven. This includes putting pressure on the Saudi government to collaborate, and holding them accountable for their involvement. However, with a war in Yemen causing unprecedented levels of starvation amongst civilians, it would be irresponsible for political leaders to totally shun the Saudi Crown Prince. The diplomatic and reserved behaviour most leaders showed towards MbS at the annual G20 summit was appropriate and well-balanced.