Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Buenos Aires on Wednesday for the G20 summit taking place in Argentina this week. He arrived after a tour of Arab states that was designed to shore up support for Saudi Arabia and specifically for bin Salman. Riyadh’s relations with some Western countries have been rocked in the wake of the murder of former Saudi insider and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October.
The G20 will be the most important foreign trip for the Crown Prince since the October crisis. The kingdom has sought to put blame on a rogue operation and move past the killing, but many voices, especially in the West and in Turkey, argue that the kingdom needs to be held accountable. Bin Salman, often called MbS, is the face of Saudi Arabia and is its most powerful leader, even though his father is king. He is scheduled to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the summit.
MbS traveled to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt prior to heading to South America. These are Riyadh’s closest allies and he met with local leaders, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In Cairo MbS and Sisi indicated that the blockade of Qatar will continue. Since the spring of 2017 Riyadh and Doha have been at odds and Saudi Arabia has led its allies in the Gulf to isolate Qatar, which in turn led Qatar to grow its relationship with Turkey and Iran. Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of supporting extremism and undermining stability through its Al Jazeera channel. Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera has kept the Khashoggi case on the top of its homepage every day since the October murder. For instance the headline on Wednesday at Al Jazeera was “MbS arrives in Argentina amid Khashoggi furor.” And asked if he would be a “pariah” at the meeting.
This is where MbS could potentially face difficulty and he needs the G20 to go well. The Crown Prince had faced protests in Tunisia during his visit and he had avoided traveling to Morocco, according to local reports. Instead he decided to include Algeria on his tour and was supposed to travel to Mauritania, although it is unclear if it is still on the agenda.
The G20 was formed in 1999 and is supposed to reflect a more globalized world that includes more than just a small group the wealthiest countries. Together, the G20 nations represent 85% of the world’s GDP and it includes countries in North America, Europe, as well as India, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, China, Turkey, Australia and Saudi Arabia. The European Union, as a group, is represented. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the only Middle Eastern states included. Because the G20 includes a wider range of powers, the controversies that have hung over Saudi Arabia in the US and Europe may be of less concern to countries such as India or China.
US President Donald Trump has stood by Saudi Arabia, arguing that it is an important ally and that a break with Riyadh would risk investments that Saudi Arabia has made in the US defense industry. The US is seeking funding for stabilization in eastern Syria and wants to stand with Saudi Arabia against Iran. This underpins Trump’s views, but the G20 will help to show whether the Crown Prince faces any censure among the world’s leading countries. Some European states have sought to cut arms sales to Riyadh, often saying the war in Yemen between the Saudi-supported government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, has become a brutal quagmire. But it’s not clear if the EU countries are just paying lip service to condemning Riyadh or will actually do more.
Russia goes to the G20 amid a crisis of its own. Russia detained three Ukrainian naval boats in the Kerch Straits this week setting off a crises as Ukraine demands that the EU countries, UN and NATO guarantee Ukrainian vessels navigation rights between the Black Sea and Azov Sea. Russia is working with Germany to find a solution while there is pressure on Trump to condemn Putin. With the Ukraine issue on some people’s minds, Saudi Arabia may benefit.