The rehabilitation of Muhammad Bin Salman

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman went some way to rehabilitating his standing among world leaders at the recent G2O summit in Argentina after the Jamal Khashoggi scandal.

The G-20 summit in Buenos Aires was a key test for Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Salman. It was his first appearance at such a high-level international forum, surrounded by the world’s top leaders, since the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul two months ago – a murder he is widely accused of knowing about and ordering.

Opinions are divided about how Bin-Salman fared at the summit and the attitude of other world leaders towards him. The Reuters News Agency judged that he was isolated. Most leaders ignored him and avoided shaking hands with him when the “family photo” of participants was taken. He was relegated to the far right of the second row and appeared tense and uncomfortable.

But the French agency AFP took a completely different view. It described him as the star of the summit and the focus of attention, and said he did not seem to have been treated as a pariah as some analysts had expected. He met with a dozen other leaders, and calls by human rights groups for him to be indicted over the Khashoggi murder and war crimes in Yemen were disregarded by the Argentinian public prosecutor

Awkward encounters

Most of the leaders who shook hands with Bin Salman met him behind closed doors, including those of China, India, South Korea, Britain, France, Canada and Mexico. Some of them focused on trade relations. Others, like Britain’s Theresa May, made a point of urging him to cooperate with Turkish investigators in the Khashoggi and support negotiations in Yemen.

France’s Emanuel Macron went further, calling for an international inquiry to identify Khashoggi’s killers and bring them to justice. In video footage of their brief encounter, the French President was overheard saying he was concerned and complaining that the Saudi Crown Prince never listened to him, which the latter denied. Justin Trudeau of Canada, whose relations with Saudi Arabia are tense, was bolder than all the others, also raising the issue of detained activists in Saudi Arabia.

Much media attention was focused on the warm handshake between Bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some observers suspect the exaggerated friendliness he displayed toward the Saudi prince was aimed at annoying US President Donald Trump. He indeed seemed visibly angered by their encounter, having decided not to hold any formal meeting with the Saudi prince and sufficed with a fleeting exchange of pleasantries with him.

This was an astute response by Putin to Trump’s cancellation of the bilateral meeting they had been due to hold, ostensibly because of developments in the Ukrainian crisis. The Russian President successfully exploited the awkward position of the Saudi Crown Prince to try to draw him away, if only a little, from Trump. The two men also agreed to extend the oil production cuts agreed with OPEC oil ministers in Algiers six months ago and, more significantly, on a visit by Putin to Riyadh early next year. That may be when he reaps his rewards in the form of commercial and investment deals.

There can no doubt that Prince Bin Salman broke down a big part of the wall of isolation that has surrounded him and his country since the Khashoggi murder and the massive media outcry it caused, seriously damaging Saudi Arabia’s image in the world. But there is still a long way to go for that image to be repaired or for Bin Salman to be fully reintegrated into the international family – especially as fresh evidence continues to mount implicating him directly in the killing.

It would also appear that Turkey will not stop springing surprise revelations about the case. That much could be surmised from the frown on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s face as he walked by the Saudi Crown Prince, ignoring him, at the photo-op. Erdogan’s advisors have confirmed that he turned down a request to hold a meeting with him on the sidelines of the summit, and that he is not interested in a deal to close the case.

Interests or human rights?

We have said it before and will say it again: interests take precedence over human rights, and the meeting held at the G-20 summit confirm this. Why should that surprise us, when in exchange for receiving Bin Salman for a visit that lasted no more than four hours, Tunisia’s treasury earned itself something close to half a billion dollars?

There was an outburst of public anger at the visit, but that is one thing, and what the rulers want and do is something completely different.

Money talks louder than any other language. That is Muhammad Bin Salman’s most potent weapon, in addition to his consolidation of power. So he could fly off to the furthest corner of South America and make his way back as though he’d been on a hunting trip in the nearby desert.

This is the reality that, like it or not, cannot be ignored — at least not for now.

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