Saudi Prince Finds Both Friends and Disapproval at G-20 Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabian leaders are usually low-key attendees of international summits, leaving the public showboating to others.

This time the spotlight was unavoidable for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After spending two days hunkered in the Saudi residence in a posh neighborhood in the Argentinian capital, he emerged to join other Group of 20 leaders.

Saudi Prince Finds Both Friends and Disapproval at G-20 Summit

Courted just months ago by Western politicians and business elite for the economic and social reforms he promoted for the conservative kingdom, the young prince is now the focus of unwanted attention over the brutal murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Khashoggi was a critic of the prince’s policies, and intelligence leaks from Turkey to counterparts such as the CIA have indicated the prince had a role in the decision to kill him, something Saudi Arabia denies.

The G-20 summit was a balancing act. On the one hand the prince needed to be seen out and about to show he wasn’t a pariah on the international stage. On the other, his desire for interactions meant he was vulnerable to getting a talking-to.

In the end more leaders chose to see him than expected, if only fleetingly. One imperative was to talk about oil. Another was to try and coax him into a careful winding down of his war in Yemen. And to keep the channels on investment open.

The prince was spotted laughing and chatting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday as the summit got underway, with the two exchanging vigorous handshakes, wide grins and arm pats.

President Xi Jinping meanwhile told the prince that China backed his push for economic diversification. And he called for them to better integrate their key economic programs -- China’s Belt and Road trade initiative and the Saudi Vision 2030.

Still, the question is whether the past few days have changed anything. U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pressing U.S. President Donald Trump to take a stronger stance, even as Trump has deflected criticisms of the prince and publicly praised him for lower oil prices.

Indeed, after the effusive moment between Putin and the prince, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent ally of Trump, posted on Twitter about "birds of a feather."

While Trump exchanged pleasantries with the crown prince, the White House made sure the president kept his distance. An official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said the U.S. rebuffed Saudi requests for a formal meeting.

Instead, the U.S. offered up Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. The Saudis refused, putting forward Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. That meeting came together at the last minute, and took place away from the cameras. Jubeir appeared encouraged by his hour-long chat, calling it “very productive.” Pompeo told CNN on Saturday there was no direct evidence linking the prince to Khashoggi’s death.

Not all interactions went smoothly for the prince. He met a stern-faced Emmanuel Macron of France, who stood close and spoke intently for several minutes. At one point Prince Mohammed clasped him on the arm as if reassuring an old friend.

Macron made the decision to stop and speak with the prince, an official said, because “we were not going to play hide and seek. Things had to be told frankly, and very very firmly.” A partial transcript of their exchange had Macron telling the prince "you never listen to me," to which the Saudi royal replied "I will listen of course."

Equally, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May used her meeting to prod the prince to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s death to account. May held seven bilateral meetings over the summit, with reporters able to attend the start of the other six. May’s office later released a photo of her looking stony-faced and away from the prince, as he glanced toward her. Footage carried by Saudi media showed the two shaking hands.

Saudi Prince Finds Both Friends and Disapproval at G-20 Summit

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced sanctions on Thursday against 17 Saudi nationals, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to Prince Mohammed twice on Friday, calling for a credible explanation of Khashoggi’s death and discussing a months-long diplomatic spat between the countries. “I continue to believe that conversations, frank and direct conversations between leaders, is better than not talking,” Trudeau said on Saturday.

There was no sign that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down with the prince. No meeting was reported by either side.

One leader later commented that Prince Mohammed was sweating when they spoke, and described him as seeking to rehabilitate himself by attending the G-20 without having taken tangible steps to actually do so.

For days after he landed in Argentina, Prince Mohammed was mostly hunkered down in the official residence shaded by rosewood trees in the opulent and tranquil neighborhood of Barrio Parque. Police officers put up black metal barricades and patrolled with assault rifles, as black Mercedes cars whisked Saudi officials in and out.

Much of the Saudi delegation was staying at the nearby Four Seasons hotel. Aides milled in the dimly-lit lobby, eating dates and drinking coffee or Arabic tea.

Prince Mohammed received Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the residence on Thursday. India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale described it as a "warm meeting" that focused on investment opportunities for Saudi Arabia in India. The leaders also discussed the need for stable energy prices.

The latter issue explains in no small part why Prince Mohammed got airtime at the summit. Russia and Saudi Arabia have spent the last two years working to manage the oil market, and what happens at the G-20 will effectively determine the outcome of next week’s meeting of OPEC members and its allies.

“The G-20 is not a court of law; it’s a place where leaders transact business and Saudi Arabia is way too important simply to shun like some might shun a more marginal country like Sudan or Syria,” said Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute. "And its role today in bringing down oil prices is of huge global importance.”

“The G-20 meeting for him wasn’t a win and it wasn’t a loss,” Salem said of the prince. "He was neither fully embraced, nor was he fully shunned. This shows that political and economic interests will continue to ‘trump’ moral positions, as they have done with other illiberal leaders like Putin, Xi and Trump."

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