The big question ahead of the G20 summit in Argentina was how world leaders would greet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid the fallout over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. We now have the answer: He was embraced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently admonished by French President Emmanuel Macron, and mostly ignored by President Donald Trump.
U.S. intelligence agencies say the Saudi crown prince, known as MbS, ordered the hit last month on Khashoggi, a journalist and regime critic, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Western intelligence agencies say Moscow used a nerve agent to try to assassinate a former Russian agent and his daughter in Britain in March. They survived, but a British woman who accidentally came in contact with the nerve agent died.
Although diplomatic relations can’t be discerned by decoding body language, interactions—or their notable absence—between world leaders at large summits are rarely accidental. Through careful choreography, all of these leaders were trying to demonstrate their power to influence one another.
News footage from Friday’s opening of the summit showed Putin and MbS smiling, seemingly joking, and sharing a high five. It’s unclear what the two men were laughing about, but the bonhomie between them was evident. Macron’s interaction with MbS was starkly different. The two men were engrossed in a conversation captured on video. The French president told the Saudi crown prince, “I am worried,” apparently over the fallout from the Khashoggi killing. He can also be heard saying: “I told you … You never listen to me … Because I told you it was an opportunity for you.” MbS replies: “It’s okay. I can take it.” Those remarks are an apparent reference to advice Macron gave MbS about ordering an international investigation into Khashoggi’s killing. The Saudi inquiry absolved the crown prince of any role, but charged more than a dozen people, including senior officials, with the murder.