by Giorgio Cafiero
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)’s exchanges with the Chinese and Russian leaders at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina were rich in geopolitical context. Keen to exploit tension between Riyadh and Washington, officials in Beijing and Moscow took advantage of this opportunity to come to the defense of MbS. Nearly two months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which the CIA concluded with “medium-to-high confidence” came on MbS’s orders, leaders across the West are calling for the crown prince to step down. Yet governments in the East have avoided making any moral issue out of the Khashoggi saga.
Given the growing outcry over Khashoggi’s murder, it was reasonable to expect MbS to have been treated like a pariah at the G20 summit. Yet his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was key to the crown prince’s quest to make his participation at the summit appear as normal as possible. An official statement from Xi stressed Beijing’s “strategic high view and long-term perspective” on the kingdom, emphasizing that “China firmly supports Saudi Arabia in its push for economic diversification and social reforms, and provides mutual support on issues involving their core interests.” Xi avoided mentioning the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi.
Just as the king of Saudi Arabia has not condemned China’s internment camps in Xinjiang that have recently captured greater global attention, Beijing is avoiding criticism of MbS on the Khashoggi file. Instead of discussing the journalist’s murder, China is interested in focusing Beijing’s relationship with Saudi Arabia on finding ways for the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and Vision 2030 to complement each other.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of MbS in Buenos Aires, meanwhile, was clearly aimed at sending the West a message. The two leaders, with their laughs and smiles, wanted to let Washington know that Russia can afford Saudi Arabia greater maneuverability in its foreign policy in an increasingly multipolar world. The Salisbury poisoning and Russia’s recent seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels are inflaming tensions between Moscow and Western capitals, and Putin wants to demonstrate that he, too, is no pariah. To be sure, this message is also intended to show a domestic audience that Putin is increasingly independent on the international stage.
Yet the cordiality between Putin and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler also speaks volumes about the state of Moscow-Riyadh relations. In what may become a historic moment, Putin’s robust high five with MbS illustrates a thawing relationship between the Kremlin and the kingdom. Despite their differences over Syria (past and present), Moscow and Riyadh are set to work together in areas where national interests overlap such as stabilizing oil prices.
Like his Abu Dhabian counterpart Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, MbS has ultimately admired Moscow’s fidelity to the Syrian regime and the Kremlin’s determination to stand by an ally no matter how bleak the circumstances. Although Riyadh opposes Assad’s regime, the Saudis see that Moscow’s Arab allies will receive Russian support throughout an existential crisis. Riyadh viewed this as a welcome contrast from the Obama administration’s refusal to do more to keep Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in power in 2011 or to enforce “red lines” in Syria two years later.
MbS’s experience in Argentina was not free of awkward moments. The Saudi crown prince wanted the summit to focus entirely on unifying the world’s most powerful leaders behind a neo-liberal economic agenda, which is the G20’s official purpose. But as a result of the Khashoggi saga, certain leaders chose to keep their distance from MbS. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, made sure to avoid appearing on warm terms with the crown prince, unlike on earlier occasions. Yet Xi and Putin, who both showed strong support for MbS, helped the kingdom’s de facto ruler integrate into the meeting.
Despite condemnation from Turkey and its fellow NATO allies, MbS is confident after the G20 summit that China and Russia will not criticize Saudi Arabia’s leadership on human rights grounds. If he succeeds his father and rules on the throne for the rest of his natural life, MbS could be the king of Saudi Arabia until 2070 regardless of what officials in the West feel.
Of course, Saudi Arabia’s approach to China and Russia for stronger relations began years ago. And the summit in Buenos Aires does not mark an end to close ties between Riyadh and the West. But the global event certainly spoke volumes about the risks and opportunities that different foreign leaders see in their relations with MbS. At this juncture, the crown prince is taking note of which leaders are standing by him, condemning him, and calling for him to relinquish power. Supporters like Xi and Putin will certainly see some benefits in the future as the West continues to reevaluate its ties with the kingdom.