His reputation shattered by evidence linking him to the gruesome slaying of a journalist, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on a rehabilitation tour, brandishing the money, influence and charm that constitute his powerful arsenal.
After a swing through the capitals of regional allies, where he was met with protests in the streets and warm welcomes in the palaces, Mohammed made the biggest splash at last week’s G-20 summit of the world’s most developed countries in Buenos Aires.
The meeting was a perfect stage for Saudi Arabia’s underlying message: To deal with the Middle East kingdom, you must deal with Mohammed bin Salman.
The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed cut a high-profile, if somewhat solitary, figure among the globe’s leaders, including President Trump.
For a group picture in the middle of the summit, for example, a looming Mohammed, in white flowing robes, installed himself at the edge of the stage. When the group broke off, he veered left, standing alone amid a beehive of officials greeting and glad-handing.
But the crown prince nonetheless walked away as the co-star of the most memorable image of the conference, his ebullient encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pair engaged in a high-five greeting, then what has been called a “bro-shake,” before sharing a big laugh (a video clip of the greeting went viral).
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said later that the exchange was an example of the “good personal relations” Putin enjoys with the Saudi leader, which will serve as grounds for “mutually beneficial cooperation.” The state-owned Saudi Press Agency said the two leaders talked about “rebalancing [oil] markets” and hinted at a deal between Moscow and Riyadh.
The Mohammed-Putin show, a senior U.S. State Department official said, reflected a Russian attempt to “exercise greater influence over things in the Middle East like the price of oil.”
“We have to be cognizant that Putin is opportunistic, looking to cement stronger strategic relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. partner,” the official, who briefed reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said. “We have to prevent Putin from having opportunities like this to cement relations with the Saudis among others.”
To be sure, the cool reception from most leaders at the summit betrayed the calculus governments face when dealing with a volatile ruler but one who is also the driving force behind the astronomical investments his kingdom will pursue in the years to come.
That transactional relationship is what Trump points to as he fails to hold the crown prince responsible for the Oct. 2 killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The American intelligence community, led by the CIA, has concluded that Mohammed likely ordered or at least knew of the slaying, despite his denials. Trump has said he has doubts about the CIA conclusion, and that arms sales and oil prices are more important anyway.
In Buenos Aires, Trump and Mohammed “exchanged pleasantries” and nothing more, according to the White House.
The crown prince did manage to meet with a handful of leaders and dodged calls by human rights groups for his indictment over the slaying of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen. But he did not escape completely unscathed.
The strongest public broadside came, predictably, from rival regional leader Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that Saudi authorities had been forced to acknowledge the killing due to Ankara’s “determined stance.”
“For us, this incident is a vicious murder and will remain so,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Turkish state news operator Anadolu.
During the first part of his regional tour before the summit, Mohammed bin Salman visited the United Arab Emirates, his main partner in regional affairs. He then moved on to Bahrain and Egypt before arriving in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
There, hundreds of demonstrators walked through the streets chanting, “Bin Salman, you butcher, you killer of souls” and carried signs deriding the crown prince as “Mr. Saw,” a reference to allegations that Khashoggi’s corpse was dismembered. Others said his visit was a “desecration” of the 2011 birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions.
After Argentina, the crown prince continued to Mauritania and Algeria.
Though there were no protests in Algeria, 17 prominent writers and journalists issued a statement saying that the killing of Khashoggi in “a barbaric and unimaginably cruel fashion by the followers of the crown prince reveals his true face.”
Yet those outbursts of anger did little to change any official stance, said Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based pan-Arab Rai Al-Youm website.
“We have to separate between people and the government. The government looks for interests, and Saudi Arabia’s weapon is its checkbook,” Atwan said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
He pointed out that Mohammed’s four-hour visit to Tunisia ended with half a billion dollars of Saudi money in its treasury. Algeria and Saudi Arabia are partners in OPEC, while Egypt, Mauritania and Bahrain all depend on Saudi Arabia’s billions to survive.
Yet, amid rumblings in and outside the desert kingdom that he might be replaced as crown prince, much of Mohammed’s performance was directed at his home audience, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center think tank in Beirut.
He was showing “anyone with influence in the kingdom” that he was still able to appear on the world stage and, contrary to predictions, was no pariah.
“He was trying to demonstrate to his domestic public, and more specifically to members of the royal family and key figures, that whatever the damage, he remains the man who receives international recognition,” Sayigh said.
In Saudi Arabia, various government-controlled news outlets portrayed Mohammed bin Salman’s trip as an unabashed triumph, in which the crown prince had outshone those who wanted to see him deposed.
Bulos reported from Beirut and Wilkinson from Washington.
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