Unwanted, isolated, Mohammed bin Salman failed the G20 Test as Jamal Khashoggi’s shadow Loomed over world leaders' reunion.
Rabat – Yesterday’s G20 summit may prove to be the starkest and boldest statement regarding Mohammed bin Salman’s current standing on the global stage of likability.
As leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies met in Argentina yesterday to discuss the world’s most burning issues—that’s the narrative, at least—Saudi Arabia’s crown prince featured prominently by his newly acquired status: the pariah of world politics.
Footage and pictures have gone viral of the Saudi’s utter isolation at the Buenos Aires summit. Whatever the reason—sincere commitment to human rights or circumstantial resistance designed to polish their own public personae back home—few world leaders appeared to be interested in having anything at all to do with the Saudi.
If Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia hoped to use the G20 summit as a litmus test of how MBS would fare in opinion polls, to see where the Saudi crown prince stands and how he can revamp his discredited public image, Argentina was a suggestion that Khashoggi’s shadow still follows MBS.
Not only did MBS’s traditional sartorial taste stand out amid “a sea of suits,” BBC’s James Landale remarked, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader’s very presence in the Argentinian capital seemed to be adding a “toxic” touch to the reunion of the world’s powerful.
The most powerful reminder of how unwelcome Mohammed bin Salman has become came as the summit’s attendees posed for the traditional family picture.
“MBS was at the far end of the line rather by himself,” Landale wrote. Judging by his sour and seemingly rueful facial expression, the Saudi may have been wondering why in the name of God he came to this humiliating ritual. “At times,” the BBC report continued, “he looked uncertain, even nervous. Some of his counterparts shared a word or two but few went out of their way to shake his hand. They know just how toxic the Saudi leader is seen by some of their electorates.”
There was, however, as is usually the case, a dim silver lining to MBS’s humiliating Argentinian summit. Russia’s Vladmir Putin, resolute in his anti-America-EU crusade, picked up an apparently fraternal conversation with the unwanted prince. What did Putin tell MBS? Perhaps Putin just wanted to score a point, to remind MBS, at the propitious moment, that he once made MBS’s day when everyone else plainly ignored hin.
Britain’s Theresa May, who spoke to the Saudi prince on the margins of the summit, reportedly insisted that Riyadh “fully cooperate” with ongoing Turkish investigations into the difficult-to-sideline Khahsoggi affair.
May’s unspoken words, given the London-Riyadh ties that her government is decided to uphold, is that MBS should be more careful in his moves amid ongoing furore over Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime. MBS should give his allies the chance to protect the alliance, she suggested.
Next was France’s Emmanuel Macron, whose brief and easily theatrical encounter with MBS animated online speculations. Macron fumed, reprimanded, showed off his moral high ground. At least so it seemed. But his vehemence was diplomatic, polite, unchallenging. Like Britain, France is attached to its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Or is it to the Saudi petrodollar?
“You never listen,” the French president was seen telling the Saudi prince off, according to widely circulated transcripts of the pair’s brief conversation.
To Macron’s polite challenge, MBS is believed to have replied, offhandedly, “Of course I will listen.” What was the crux of Macron’s concern? What is it that MBS promised to listen to? No one knows. But that was apparently not the point.
The point, Macron continued, is that he worries for MBS. “Don’t worry,” the prince said. “I worry,” Macron insisted. Did Macron worry that MBS is impossibly oblivious to the global Khashoggi outcry? Or is the French leader concerned that France may be forced to walk away from a crucial bilateral relationship that is increasingly unpopular with French voters? Again, no one can tell.
What we do know, though, is that the G20 leaders’ snubbing attitude towards MBS was purely a statement intended to tell Saudi Arabia and its powerful prince to see the error of their ways, to change.
But will MBS heed the warning? Will he change? And would that really matter at this point?
If Buenos Aires was a test, MBS lamentably failed it.