Mohammed bin Salman Tries to Polish His Image at the G20

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is on a quest to cleanse and polish his image and rehabilitate his reputation in the Arab world, his region, and internationally. Both have fallen victim to unending criticism related to his role in the killing of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, the continuing Saudi intervention in the war in Yemen, and the kingdom’s human rights violations. Regaining the cultivated image and rehabilitating the vaunted reputation are essential for his future as fulcrum of power in Saudi Arabia, putative leader of the Arab world, and pivotal actor in the geostrategic game in which his country participates. Additionally, and especially since the Khashoggi assassination on October 2, bin Salman’s quest appears to also be a topmost priority for the Trump Administration that has gone out of its way to defend him and deflect whatever threats befall his final accession to ultimate power.

Touring the Arab World

After participating in the domestic tour his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz made to the kingdom’s tribes and regions, possibly to help consolidate his son’s credentials, MbS began his own regional journey, visiting the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Egypt, and Tunisia. While he enjoyed an actual king’s welcome in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Cairo, he saw public protests and demonstrations in Tunis objecting to the government’s receiving him despite what his detractors described as his responsibility for the killing and human rights violations. Public posters were hoisted on buildings and demonstrators marched in downtown Tunis to pressure the government to reject MbS’s entry.

This Tunisian cold reception was arguably expected since Tunisia’s success in transitioning to democracy after 2011 continues to be an example of triumph against the status quo autocratic Arab political order that Saudi Arabia has defended for decades and which MbS will be assumed to nourish in the future. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia still shelters former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who fled there after popular protests ended his rule in January 2011. On the other hand, reports indicate that Morocco has refused to receive the Saudi crown prince because of the Khashoggi killing. It may also be partial payback for Saudi Arabia’s refusal to support Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

MbS’s cold reception in Tunis was arguably expected since Tunisia’s success in transitioning to democracy after 2011 continues to be an example of triumph against the status quo autocratic Arab political order that Saudi Arabia has defended for decades and which MbS will be assumed to nourish in the future.

To the G20

MbS’s troubles with protests likely may not end in Tunis but are expected to accompany him to Argentina where he joins the G20 meeting on November 30. Human Rights Watch submitted a request to the Argentine federal prosecutor to investigate the crown prince’s violations of human rights inside the kingdom and conduct in the Yemen war. An Argentine judge has indeed proceeded with the case and has inquired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about MbS’s diplomatic status. Civil society and women activists have been subjected to torture and sexual harassment while Yemen teeters on the brink of famine and may have lost an estimated 85,000 of its children to starvation. It is doubtful whether HRW’s petition will prompt immediate action, if at all; but its message is that MbS’s luster has faded and his policies and behavior have become a liability for his position as actual decisionmaker in Riyadh and as representative of the premier energy producer for the world’s economy. His weakened and unsure status was probably most obvious when he chose to stay at the Saudi embassy in Buenos Aires for the duration of the meeting instead of at a hotel in the city as is normally the case.

It will be telling how the crown prince is received by the other leaders of the G20 grouping. His arguably most important and immediate concern, the United States, has already declared its support in a White House statement despite the American intelligence community’s firm assessment that he ordered Khashoggi’s killing. To be sure, the Trump Administration has vacillated in its position on MbS’s culpability, hiding in the end behind the combination of American strategic interests in Saudi Arabia and the economic benefits accrued from American-Saudi relations to arrive at exonerating him of any crime. It thus is not hard to surmise that the crown prince’s participation in the G20 meeting is important to show that international criticism has not cowed him or forced him to retreat from the world.

It is not hard to surmise that the crown prince’s participation in the G20 meeting is important to show that international criticism has not cowed him or forced him to retreat from the world.

What is likely to be a problem for MbS, however, are the attitudes of other important participants, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, the United Kingdom’s Teresa May, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Macron and May have expressed serious concerns about the Khashoggi murder to King Salman and called on Saudi Arabia to help the Turkish investigation into it. Later, Macron suspended diplomatic visits to the kingdom. Both France and the UK are arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia and pressure to suspend them is mounting. Germany announced a halt to such sales to the kingdom and Merkel demanded transparency in the investigation of the Khashoggi killing. Other international actors such as Japan, India, China, and South Korea had similar critical reactions. What is sure is that G20 leaders find bin Salman a reliable future king with whom they can develop long-term relations, a task made very difficult by his own actions.

But perhaps the most awkward situation will be MbS’s potential meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was reported that the crown prince has requested a one-on-one with the Turkish president. It is obviously hard to predict how such a meeting may proceed; but, considering what can be described as a masterful way with which Erdoğan’s government has handled the information it possesses on Khashoggi’s killing, MbS may be in for a difficult time. To be sure, the continuing drip-drip release and leaking of information by Turkish sources since October 2 are likely to keep the crown prince and the Saudi leadership off balance because of the unpredictability of what might come next. Plainly speaking, if the Turkish president insists on a specific course of action that will be impossible for MbS to abide, it will be unlikely that the wished-for facelift will succeed to achieve its objective.

Perhaps the most awkward situation is MbS’s meeting with Erdoğan whose government has masterfully used information about Khashoggi’s killing that puts the crown prince in a very difficult position. 

Some Costs of Failure

The failure to polish Mohammed bin Salman’s image and restoring his and the kingdom’s reputation has serious repercussions from Riyadh to Washington. Considering the ongoing tug of war between Mohammed bin Salman and other members of the royal family, the crown prince may find it very hard to govern, especially if he continues to sideline others whom he considers to be bitter rivals. The economic program he has championed to diversify the Saudi economy will most likely fizzle if he cannot restore international confidence in his policies and character. Finally, the social agenda he has adopted concerning modernizing Saudi society––albeit without allowing individual political freedoms and rights––will likewise be buried by a religious establishment that has not really endorsed it.

As for the United States, it may be instructive that President Trump is not scheduled to meet with MbS in Buenos Aires, although such a meeting will help the latter’s redemption. The president may reason that he and his administration have done all they could to help the crown prince overcome the hurdles he himself erected. Besides, the president’s November 20 statement extolling the virtues of maintaining American-Saudi relations appeared careful to emphasize that the relationship “is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”; that is, if all attempts at saving MbS from himself fail, the White House may not fight for him. To emphasize this point, Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and of Defense James Mattis testified on November 28 in front of the US Senate in defense of American strategic interests in a relationship with the kingdom. Although they did not disparage the crown prince, and indeed repeated what the president had said that there is no definite proof that MbS ordered Khashoggi’s killing, their emphasis was on supporting the kingdom in its efforts in Yemen.

On the other hand, the Senate’s 63-37 procedural vote to allow discussion of a measure to end US support to the Saudi war effort in Yemen was a clear rebuke of the administration. Fourteen Republican senators bucked the president and joined the body’s Democrats and Independents almost immediately after Pompeo and Mattis testified. Significantly, many Republicans changed their stance on the issue because of what they saw as the administration’s reluctance to provide the necessary information on the Khashoggi killing when the White House prevented the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gina Haspel from testifying. Haspel had seen the evidence Turkey provided about the murder, and that had informed the agency’s assessment that MbS was culpable for it.

The Senate’s 63-37 procedural vote to allow discussion of a measure to end US support to the Saudi war effort in Yemen was a clear rebuke of the administration.

As things stand today, Mohammed bin Salman is on an uphill trek to a better image and a shinier veneer after his numerous ill-conceived and ill-advised policies and decisions. His culpability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the killing of civilians in Yemen, and a shoddy and oppressive treatment of activists in the kingdom have led to a serious questioning of where the world should stand regarding his continued leadership role in Saudi Arabia. His participation in the G20 summit meeting in Argentina is one venue where he can gauge his standing among the leaders of the world’s largest economies. Only time will tell; but looking at what has transpired since Khashoggi’s death, his trip is unlikely to give him the requisite peace of mind: that he has indeed succeeded in polishing his image or restoring his reputation.

Still, however, it appears that those close to MbS in Riyadh don’t see any trouble with his image and reputation. To be sure, al-Riyadh newspaper’s masthead1 on Thursday, November 29, proclaimed that “The Crown Prince Arrives in Buenos Aires…and the Kingdom is the Star of the G20.” Indeed!

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 Source in Arabic.