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.
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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.”