The Saudi Crown Prince Gets a Pass on Khashoggi at the G20

Mohammed bin Salman’s presence at the meeting signals a desire to put the Khashoggi affair behind him. Global leaders will probably let him.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman steps off the plane at the G20 in Buenos Aires.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the G20 in Buenos Aires. (Reuters)

When leaders of the Group of 20 nations meet Friday in Argentina, they will discuss the global economy, climate and energy, and efforts to fight corruption. One item that will almost certainly not be on their agenda—despite the presence in their midst of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—is the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad.

And Saudi Arabia is not alone in the G20 for its casual attitude toward human rights. Turkey, the leading critic of the Saudi investigation into Khashoggi’s killing, has more journalists in jail than any other country and can hardly be taken seriously as a defender of the free press or human rights. China imprisons its dissidents and has interned its Uighur Muslim population in camps. Russia uses assassination as a technique to rid itself of dissidents. All three are members of the G20, as are others with human-rights concerns.

Put another way, the G20 is not the Group of Eight, which suspended Russia after its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and so became the G7. Nor is it the European Union, which has criticized members such as Hungary and Poland for their perceived lack of commitment to shared European values. The G20 is primarily an economic club, a mission from which it rarely strays. It is happy to overlook messy internal political issues—especially ones involving a leader who is widely seen as the face of modern Saudi Arabia, which is scheduled to host the G20 summit in 2020.

The Saudi crown prince, widely known as MbS, was named heir apparent last year and quickly announced significant changes in the kingdom, including allowing women to drive. But his role has come under scrutiny following an anti-corruption campaign that included the detention and alleged torture of prominent princes; profligate spending; and the arrest of critics of the Saudi government. The Khashoggi killing was a turning point for many, with one notable exception: President Donald Trump.

He has essentially given the crown prince a free pass over Khashoggi’s killing, despite the CIA’s reported assessment that the Saudi heir apparent ordered the hit. Additionally, Trump has reiterated that the U.S.-Saudi partnership, which encompasses energy, security, and regional cooperation, is far too vital for something like a journalist’s killing to dampen it. Absent a strong U.S. position on the issue, it is all but certain that the Saudis have a get-out-of-jail-free card at the G20.

“What’s really striking today is the fact that tyrants and despots can run rampant in an era in which the United States, in particular, is not serving as a champion for freedom of the press,” said Stewart Patrick, who studies international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the past, the United States might have managed to insert language about human rights and free expression into the G20’s final communiqué. But the Trump administration’s actions show that it will not put those issues at the forefront, and other Western members of the club, such as Britain, are unlikely to criticize the Saudis publicly either.

If there is any criticism at all, it could come from Canada, which is embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia over Ottawa’s criticism of the kingdom’s human-rights record. Germany, which had a brief but similar dispute with Riyadh, could chime in, as could France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, has emerged as a vocal advocate of liberal values. (Argentine officials are reportedly looking into possible criminal charges against MbS following a complaint lodged by Human Rights Watch; it is highly unlikely, however, that the Saudi crown prince will face any action, given that he can claim diplomatic immunity.) Trump is not scheduled to meet MbS at the G20, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t.

Even if the G20 doesn’t publicly shun MbS, it is quite likely that some of its members will broach Khashoggi’s killing with him in private.

“Even those Western leaders, of which there are many, who don’t want Jamal Khashoggi’s murder to interfere with their relations with Saudi Arabia will feel the need to raise it with MbS,” said Robert Malley, who served as an adviser in the Clinton and Obama administrations and now heads the International Crisis Group. “They simply can’t afford to come out of the meeting and, when asked by the media, say they didn’t bring it up.”

Western countries now find themselves performing a delicate balancing act: normalizing their relationship with Saudi Arabia without fully normalizing their relationship with MbS. The Saudis, however, have other ideas. In previous years, they sent lower-ranking ministers as their representatives to the G20, so MbS’s presence in Buenos Aires is hardly routine. Indeed, it signals that the Saudis, after looking at the relatively muted international response to Khashoggi’s killing, are normalizing the crown prince’s role.

“This is a bold effort to force the issue,” Jon Alterman, who studies the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said at a recent event. “If you’re going to work with Saudi Arabia, you will be working with the crown prince.”