Most of the international community seems to be welcoming MBS back into their club after publicly snubbing him at the previous G20 meet.
If anyone hoped to see an international condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, they would have been left sorely disappointed.
Along with regional accomplices such as Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) of the United Arab Emirates, MBS has supported putschists like Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el Sisi, blown Yemen and its people to smithereens alongside his enemies the Iran-backed Houthis, killed journalists while placing dissidents on death row on spurious charges, and represents a counterrevolutionary movement hell-bent on crushing any bottom-up political movements in the Arab world.
Despite all that, and compared to his laughable showing at the last summit in Argentina merely two months after the brutal slaying of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, world leaders were visibly more comfortable greeting MBS and holding meetings and discussions with him than they were just eight months ago.
Clearly, whatever outrage existed at the very public killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul in October last year had dissipated, and the world was once more ready to talk about the one bottom line everyone cares about – money.
Trump on form as MBS protector
During the previous summit in Buenos Aires, MBS was borderline shunned in the G20 family photo, relegated to the periphery of the scene. This time, however, he was front and centre right next to US President Donald Trump who stood in between him and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite doing very little with regard to Iran’s recent escalations in the Arabian Gulf, including the downing of an American drone allegedly over international waters, Trump has stepped up on Riyadh’s behalf in other ways. He went to great lengths to pose with MBS, wearing an enormous smile on his face and vigorously shaking his hand, telling him what a “great job” he had been doing in Saudi Arabia on several fronts, including women’s rights.
What Trump failed to mention, of course, was how MBS’ regime had imprisoned several high-profile female activists in the Kingdom who are accused of fomenting discord and sedition. Lifting a ban on women driving, while commendable, is certainly not a get out of jail free card to start arresting and incarcerating women who continue to push for more rights. According to a panel of British MPs, Saudi Arabia is detaining these activists in conditions “akin to torture” – hardly praiseworthy.
When confronted by CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked Trump at the final G20 presser “what is it with your cosiness with some of the dictators and autocrats at these summits?,” Trump simply replied that he gets along “with everybody, except you people,” gesturing at the members of the press assembled to ask him questions which are typical to the functioning of any democracy.
After once more indicating that journalists and the press were the enemies rather than autocratic dictators, Trump explicitly stated: “I get along with President Putin [of Russia], I get along with Mohammed [bin Salman] from Saudi Arabia.”
No surprise, then, that Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi and the United Arab Emirates’ disastrous campaign in Yemen has been given short shrift and high-value deals with Saudi royalty were given a premium.
Britain is also complicit
However, and particularly when it comes to Yemen, Trump is not the sole culprit.
While outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May made a point of encouraging MBS to cooperate fully with Turkey’s investigation into Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of agents the United Nations has now linked to the crown prince, that appeared to have been a stunt for the cameras.
I am certain that May found Khashoggi’s killing to be distasteful, but that was as far as it went. I doubt she, or indeed other world leaders, cared too much for his fate or to bring his killers to justice, yet made public statements for the sake of their electorates.
After all, if May had truly felt so strongly about the entire affair, she would not have continued to sell billions of pounds worth of British arms to Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, and after a legal campaign by human rights organisations, the Court of Appeal ruled that the sale of weapons that could be used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies were unlawful and must cease immediately. Their ruling was based on the question of whether the British government had done enough to investigate whether the Saudi-led alliance had breached international law using British-made arms and whether there was a “clear risk” of future breaches.
Despite this ruling, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said that the government would cease approving the sale of new weapons to Riyadh and its allies, but would appeal the court’s ruling. This is an abhorrent position to take as it gives the clear suggestion that the British government sees no problem with selling arms to a military alliance that has verifiably killed scores of civilians.
Ultimately, however, this goes back to realpolitik and how interests and expedience trump morality and lofty sentiments. This is not unusual in high-level state interactions, but that does not mean that we should stay silent and not attempt to pressure those at the very top to do the right thing.
However, MBS is unlikely ever to face justice so long as he is useful to the powers that be with his country’s massive investments, purchasing orders, and regional cooperation on the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Until MBS has exhausted his usefulness, he will never be held to account by the international community.
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