Decoding the Dance of Power: How Leaders Met MBS at the G20

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, top right, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past while leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018.

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, top right, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past while leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018.

With the killing of Jamal Khashoggi hanging over the Argentina summit, how leaders interacted with the Saudi crown prince revealed their relative positions of power.

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 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 and 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 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 OK. 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.

Then there was the way Trump interacted with MbS. His interactions are significant because when he has previously attended such events, Trump has spoken in support of autocrats, and criticized America’s allies. But on Friday, he walked past the Saudi crown prince and didn’t stop to talk or shake hands—a reaction at odds with the president’s show of support for MbS in the Khashoggi case. (A White House official reportedly told The New York Times that they later “exchanged pleasantries.”) Trump has said that while what happened to Khashoggi was awful, Saudi Arabia is far too important an ally for the U.S. to censure the crown prince. Saudi media said Trump and MbS had a “friendly meeting” later, but when Trump was later asked about it, he said: “We had no discussions.”

MbS was hardly the only leader Trump avoided—he also walked past Putin. The two had been set to meet on Thursday, but Trump canceled the meeting, citing Russia’s seizure last weekend of Ukrainian naval vessels near Crimea. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Trump’s cancellation came shortly after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, telling a federal court he traveled to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign to discuss the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow. Trump also appeared to avoid Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been the most outspoken critic of the Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s killing.

By contrast, Trump appeared to enjoy his conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron, who strongly criticized Trump’s vision of nationalism at an event this month marking the end of World War I, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has tried to forge a close alliance with the American president despite tensions over Japanese car exports to the United States.

All this, even before the G20 leaders take on contentious issues like global trade and climate change on Saturday. How the leaders conduct themselves when the cameras are rolling will certainly be worth watching.

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