Saudi Crown Prince strides back on to world stage

US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Osaka last Saturday. The two had a chummy breakfast meeting, with Mr Trump calling the Crown Prince a friend and reformer who is bringing "revolution in a posi
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 summit in Osaka last Saturday. The two had a chummy breakfast meeting, with Mr Trump calling the Crown Prince a friend and reformer who is bringing "revolution in a positive way".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Big role at G-20 a stark contrast to last summit, when there was outrage over killing of Saudi critic Khashoggi

ISTANBUL • Seven months ago, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seemed like the loneliest leader at the party.

At the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Argentina, he spent two days holed up in the Saudi residence in a posh neighbourhood in the capital, Buenos Aires, avoiding a firestorm over the murder of columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

When he did emerge, he was lectured by the leaders of Britain, Canada and France. US President Donald Trump dodged a chat with him. A rare bright spot was Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he shared a firm handshake and smiles.

Fast forward to this year's G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, and it is a different story. He met leaders including Mr Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Perhaps most visibly, he had a chummy breakfast meeting with Mr Trump, who called him a friend and reformer who is bringing "revolution in a positive way".

Prince Mohammed, who is often referred to as MBS, looked confident as he strode in to shake hands last Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ahead of a family photo where he scored pole position in the centre of the front row, between Mr Trump and Mr Abe. He also delivered a speech at the closing session.

Part of that is probably protocol, as Saudi Arabia is hosting the next G-20 summit in late 2020.

But while he was perhaps less shunned in Osaka, Western leaders hardly went out of their way to engage him. British PM Theresa May brought up Yemen, Iran and Mr Khashoggi in her meeting with him.

But it also reflects the broader reality of Saudi Arabia's importance to many countries for its oil and its key role in Middle East security.

The message from the G-20 is that as time passes, some leaders at least are looking to move on from the Khashoggi affair. "MBS emerged as a leader of stature - but the stature of Putin, feared rather than necessarily respected," said Mr Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

That status might be enough for now for Prince Mohammed.

While he has projected an image of a young reformer, eager to open up Saudi Arabia's economy and give greater freedoms to women, the 33-year-old de facto leader has also presided over a crackdown on female activists and faced global criticism over Mr Khashoggi's murder by Saudi agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

MBS has denied ordering the killing, although the United Nations has recommended probing his possible involvement.

 
 

He has also emerged as a central figure in Mr Trump's Middle East plans, especially the containment of Iran. That has given him some protection despite anger in Congress over Mr Khashoggi's murder and the Crown Prince's actions backing a military alliance fighting in Yemen, where a long-running war has sparked a large humanitarian crisis.

Mr Trump made his first foreign trip as President to Saudi Arabia in 2017, promising hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons sales to the kingdom. "We have a great relationship and that's very important," the President said last Saturday as he met Prince Mohammed.

The Crown Prince replied: "We're trying to do the best for our country." He added: "It's a long journey."

But while he was perhaps less shunned in Osaka, Western leaders hardly went out of their way to engage him. Mrs May, for instance, brought up Yemen, Iran and Mr Khashoggi in her 20-minute meeting with him.

An official readout of the Crown Prince's closing remarks to the G-20 suggests the need for him to not only diversify his economy, but also diversify his friends. It contained references to his comments on the importance of international cooperation. It finished with him expressing hope that G-20 leaders will allow him to host them next year in Riyadh.

BLOOMBERG

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi Crown Prince strides back on to world stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe