A Family Photo With a Difference: Leaders Gather for G-20 Summit
(Bloomberg) -- He might have been standing on the fringes of the traditional "family photo" at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got lots of attention.
One of the first on the podium in Buenos Aires ahead of the formal start of the summit, and relegated to the very end of a row on the right, Prince Mohammed nevertheless managed handshakes with several leaders -- including outgoing Brazilian President Michel Temer and Rwandan President Paul Kagame (the host nation is allowed to invite a handful of non G-20 leaders each year) -- as they passed.
Donald Trump, who has staunchly defended the prince amid a global backlash over last month’s brutal killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of critic and columnist Jamal Khashoggi, was not one of them. Instead the U.S. president appeared to barely acknowledge MBS, as he’s known, before taking his place for the photo between French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The U.S. president is facing pressure from lawmakers on both sides at home to take a tougher stance against the prince, rather than defend him as a reformer and a facilitator of lower oil prices for the U.S. economy. Later Friday, a White House official said Trump and Prince Mohammed exchanged pleasantries at a leaders’ session -- as the president did with nearly every leader in attendance.
Trump said he “had no discussion” with the crown prince, but “we might," the official said.
The U.S. president also didn’t pay much attention to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who found himself snubbed for the second time in a month after Trump used Twitter to torpedo their planned meeting in Argentina. Trump cited Putin’s recent provocations against Ukraine, although the optics of him meeting the Russian leader at a time of renewed focus on his business dealings with Moscow were potentially not great.
Russian media reported Friday that Putin and Trump might chat briefly on the sidelines of the G-20, though a White House official said later that there was no plan for a pull-aside meeting between the two men.
Putin and Prince Mohammed are set to have a formal sit-down at the summit. Greeting each other after the family photo, the two vigorously shook hands, chatted and laughed as they entered the plenary room for the opening session. The prince also has U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on his list after what appeared to be something of a talking to from Macron when the two briefly interacted earlier Friday.
The world will have to wait a little longer for an update on how Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are getting on. They are scheduled to meet over dinner on Saturday as they seek to keep trade tensions from erupting into a full-throttle Cold War. The stakes are high for them both politically and for the many nations watching with concern the sparring between the world’s two biggest economies.
Another question is whether leaders can agree on a final communique and, if they do, whether it’s so watered down as to be meaningless. The meeting comes against the backdrop of populist governments and Trump’s questioning of the system of trade rules that has underpinned global commerce for decades. European leaders like Macron have led the push to preserve that multilateral system.
Twice this year the entire communique process has collapsed. At June’s Group of 7 meeting in Canada, Trump withdrew U.S. support for the document he had just agreed to, upset about the treatment by his host Justin Trudeau amid bilateral tensions over trade. No final statement was reached at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea this month, as China and the U.S. clashed, again over trade.
One leader who almost didn’t make the photo was outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who ran in at the last minute to a round of applause from the others, waving his hand in apology.
Missing entirely was Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose arrival was delayed for the better part of a day by a serious technical failure on her plane, which forced her to return to Germany Thursday night. She is en route now, and should make it in time for the summit opening night dinner. But she’s missed scheduled meetings Friday with the likes of Trump and Xi, and may have to truncate her chats to squeeze them in.
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