Khashoggi Case Is No Moral Issue for China or Russia

Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman

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.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.



  1. A greeting from others doesn’t create a justification for ‘continuing the business as usual’ by the other party.
    The US is part of the murder by the reckless support that made MbS sure that this one would go through as before. The support he received after aiming weddings, funerals and school-bus with US precision-arms had given the courage to him to go forward.
    Proving China and Russia being immoral in a ceremony doesn’t make west to look moral while standing behind a continuous blood-shed in Yemen. The Khashooghi case was only a flower of this full-bloom tree of terror cared by the US.

  2. Woaw.
    How much more can the West be hypocritical. It is amazing that you dare to write such kind of article.
    To put things straight. Russia is hoping to sell a defense system to KSA, not offensive support like the US. Russia is a long term allied of Iran, the number 1 enemy of KSA.
    US provided full military support to KSA, at the very beginning of the crisis, US ensured that Russia could not land a plane in Yemen and completely shielded off Yemen. Then USAF is actively participating in the bombing of innocents, providing refueling to KSA’s murderers. Israel, another good friend of KSA allegedly provided it with a spyware that allow them to track opponent and naturally, once located they get disposed of.
    USA supported KSA even more by withdrawing of the JCPOA and imposing sanctions on Iran, by continuously selling weapons and even signing a 100bn military contract in 2018.
    When there was still unproven suspicion that Russia was culprit of _attempting_ to kill one of its ex spy, over 100 diplomats were expelled.
    Ryad as not yet been officially condemned and almost nothing happened in the West.
    Why then would China and Russia need to live by higher standards than the US and recant their own argumentation that one is innocent until proven guilty?
    Amazing that the West dares to instrumentalize Kashoggi (r) to accuse the East of being immoral! Shame on you! And then DC talks about fake news and propaganda? Simply baffling!

  3. Has anyone ever done a cost accounting of supporting Saudi Arabia (and similar regimes)? The interesting question is : which pays better – supporting or rejecting super immoral regimes ?

    The assumption tends to be that realpolitik obviously pays much better than moralpolitk. I wonder.

    Hasn’t Saudi A. been v. expensive for the US and others? – The twin towers disaster led to an extremely expensive war. Saudi support of ISIS led to another extremely expensive war for the US, Syria and many others. It’s possible the Yemen war may also be come to be v. expensive for the US and the West

    It’s obviously v. difficult to answer such questions, but they should be asked and pursued. My hypothesis is that moralpolitik – supporting and dealing with free democratic countries (and democratisation) – and resisting regimes of all kinds – is vastly more rewarding every way long term even if more expensive in the short term.

  4. Both Putin and Xi have a different motive to stay silent about Khashoggi murder mystery! They both really don’t give a rat’s ass about who’s in charge of SA as long as their interests are protected. Putin’s motivation, as stated in the article, is to maintain stability in export and high oil prices. Xi on the other hand is motivated by stability in flow of oil from the ME region to China since shortage or a regional instability can adversely effect Chinese economic health.
    Politically though, both Putin and Xi see Khashoggi murder scenario and MbS’s immaturity as sources of troubles for the West specifically for the US and Trump with a very little risk to Russia or China. Putin and Xi also know that Trump is very incompetent politically. So regarding MbS, they are allowing Trump to swim in the ocean of lies and deceit without a life jacket or an anchor rope! Both Putin and Xi see the possibility that Trump may get embarrassed by the Khashoggi affair when he has to tell the whole world that he should have stayed quiet until the CIA assessment was out!

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