Analysis & Opinions - The Guardian

Saudi Prince's Presence at G20 Offers Leaders a Photo Op to Dread – Will He Go?

| Nov. 22, 2018

Written by: Julian Borger and Uki Goñi

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s scheduled appearance at the G20 summit next week in Buenos Aires presents world leaders with a moment of truth they would rather avoid.

Western powers such as the US, UK and France have been happy to keep up arms sales to Riyadh despite the carnage in Yemen and the threat of the worst famine the world has seen in a generation, for which Saudi Arabia bears heavy responsibility.

Even after the international outcry over the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, that multi-billion dollar weapons trade has continued unabated.

However, being pictured with the crown prince in Argentina would be a political nightmare for most of the other leaders at the G20.

Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five have died in Yemen from extreme hunger or disease since the war began nearly four years ago, and up to 14 million people are at risk of famine, due in large part to the stranglehold the Saudi-led coalition has clamped on the Yemeni economy. And more damning evidence of the Saudi court’s involvement in Khashoggi’s grisly execution emerges each day.

“It is a significant moment,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We have a crown prince for whom the Khashoggi thing is only one part of reckless and dangerous policies across the region, in Yemen and Lebanon and elsewhere.”

Riedel added: “In Yemen, we are now looking at millions of people at risk. Are the leaders of the world community going to do anything about it?”

Earlier this week, Donald Trump made clear that none of this gives him any pause, with one of the more remarkable foreign policy statements in US presidential history, scattered with exclamation marks and false statements. By casting doubt on widely reported US intelligence assessments of the Khashoggi killing, and putting the entire blame for the Yemeni conflict on Iran, Trump mortgaged US national interests to Riyadh.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been seen in the Middle East as a US client state, but Trump turned that conventional wisdom on its head. By baldly rationalising his unquestioning support on the grounds of (grossly exaggerated) arms sales and Saudi influence on the global oil price, the president presented the US as the client.

Trump’s talking points – the US sales and jobs lost to Russia and China, the oil price spike of $150 per barrel, and the characterisation of Khashoggi as a “enemy of the state” and a Muslim Brotherhood member – are taken directly from the crown prince’s threats to US national security adviser John Bolton and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a confrontational phone call last month that followed the journalist’s murder, according to sources familiar with the call.

Trump has declared himself happy to grip and grin with MBS, as the prince is known, if the 33 year-old Saudi leader appears at the G20 summit – but the US president’s eagerness could be an exception.

“I hope there are some brave people left on the planet to advise MBS it is probably not in his best interests to go to the G20,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch. “And anyone who bumps into him should have a list of questions that people would like the answers to.”

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is also due in Buenos Aires and can be expected to use it as a platform to demand accountability for the Khashoggi murder. His party has derided Trump’s statement of support for MBS as “comic”.

Angela Merkel is likely to stay well away from the prince, having already cut off (very limited) German arms sales to the kingdom and issued European travel bans against 18 Saudis suspected of involvement.

For Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, however, the dilemma is deeper. Their governments are still selling armaments to the Saudis, which are being used in Yemen. The morality of those sales will come into sharp focus by their proximity to MBS, and both are already unpopular enough at home.

The UK is seeking to gather support on the UN security council for a humanitarian ceasefire and the resumption of food and medicine supplies, an effort MBS and his allies have sought to obstruct. A vote has been put off until next week at the earliest, while a Saudi-led on the port city of Hodeidah has been stepped up.

“I imagine MBS will be greeted warmly by the authoritarian leaders in Buenos Aires and by Trump,” said Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state for political affairs. “It will be up to Merkel, Macron, May and Trudeau to be the champions of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and to avoid embracing him.”

As of Wednesday, the Argentinian hosts of the G20 summit, on 30 November and 1 December, said MBS was still on the guest list, but he may yet reconsider. The risks are not just political and diplomatic.

In theory, Bin Salman could face legal jeopardy under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which allows prosecutors in any country to seek the arrest of individuals suspected of grave crimes like genocide, torture or extrajudicial executions, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

Three universal jurisdiction cases have already been opened in Argentina, concerning the Spanish civil war, the Armenian genocide and Palestine. Human rights groups in Buenos Aires said there were no plans to seek MBS’s arrest.

But lawyers could charge him in a European court, and then seek his arrest through Interpol in Buenos Aires.

“There is a serious risk of complaints being filed against him,” Whitson said. “And not being the head of state means he does not benefit from impunity.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Saudi Prince's Presence at G20 Offers Leaders a Photo Op to Dread – Will He Go?.” The Guardian, November 22, 2018.