Written By Peter Baker
Barely a week ago, he was, in theory, a marked man, fingered by the United Nations as the probable mastermind behind one of the most grisly and sensational murders of recent years.
But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been wandering around the world stage in Japan the last couple of days hobnobbing with presidents and prime ministers as if he were just another leader deliberating on economics and energy.
No one is more important to Saudi efforts to rehabilitate their de facto ruler after the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi than President Donald Trump, who joshed around with the crown prince during a summit photo session Friday and hosted him for a personal breakfast Saturday morning where he lavished praise on the prince as a reformer opening up his society.
“It’s like a revolution in a very positive way,” Trump told the crown prince. “I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you. You’ve done a really spectacular job.” Trump specifically complimented the crown prince for granting women the right to drive and for fighting terrorism.
Trump ignored questions by reporters about Khashoggi’s death and the crown prince’s apparent role in it, and made no mention of the Saudi government’s crackdown on dissent, including the prosecution of women’s activists and the recent arrests of intellectuals and journalists, including two with dual US citizenship. After breakfast, Trump went to a session on women’s empowerment.
Trump’s willingness to embrace Crown Prince Mohammed as if nothing was wrong sent a powerful signal to the rest of the world and represented a cold-eyed calculation that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is more important than the death of Khashoggi, a longtime Saudi dissident who had been working as a columnist for The Washington Post and who had lived in the United States as a legal resident.
While Trump chatted briefly with Crown Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of another summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November, this was their first formal meeting since Khashoggi’s death. The president and his team expressed no hesitance about making the crown prince one of just two world leaders invited to join Trump for a separate meal during his stay here in Osaka.
Trump’s own CIA long ago concluded that the crown prince ordered the murder of Khashoggi, and a U.N. human rights investigator concluded last week that the destruction of evidence after the crime “could not have taken place without the crown prince’s awareness,” suggesting his complicity.
Just two days before the annual Group of 20 summits opened in Osaka, the U.N. expert on extrajudicial killings called for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s death. Saudi officials have denied that the crown prince had any involvement in the killing. Trump has effectively taken them at their word.
“The president is embracing the most reckless and despotic ruler in Saudi history,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution and author of “Kings and Presidents,” about ties between Saudi and American leaders. “He has made the relationship with the Saudis a partisan political issue. If a Democrat wins in 2020, we are likely to face an existential crisis in the relationship over Khashoggi and Yemen.”
Human rights and journalism advocacy groups said Trump’s breakfast with Crown Prince Mohammed would embolden autocrats around the world, making clear to them that they could repress and even assassinate journalists with impunity without being held accountable by the United States.
“Instead, President Trump’s efforts to excuse Khashoggi’s murder and discourage any investigation have made him an accessory after the fact to one of the most heinous crimes in recent history,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But Trump has made clear that in his estimation, the relationship is more important than any single incident, telling NBC News last week that he did not want to jeopardize profitable arms sales to Saudi Arabia by speaking out on Khashoggi’s death.
Some foreign policy specialists said that was just the distasteful reality of international relations. American presidents, they said, have little choice but to interact with sometimes loathsome figures in the pursuit of larger goals vital to the national security of the United States. Saudi Arabia, they said, has been the linchpin of US influence in the Middle East and energy security for decades.
“It’s absolutely vital that the president confer closely with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia — and be seen to be conferring openly and confidently,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Saudi Arabia is the most important Arab ally of the United States, an indispensable partner in the effort to contain and denuclearize Iran, and the most influential single actor in the Muslim world.”
It was not as if Crown Prince Mohammed could look around the conference in Osaka and see only uncompromised figures. President Vladimir Putin has presided over a crackdown in Russia and has been blamed for the deaths of some journalists and political opponents. President Xi Jinping of China rules the largest state of repression in the world, one that has detained hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighur Muslims, if not more, for high-pressure indoctrination.
But it was still striking to see Crown Prince Mohammed moving about the room in his flowing white robes and traditional Saudi red-and-white checkered headdress smiling, shaking hands and sharing jokes with Trump and others. While in Buenos Aires in November, he was placed at the very edge of the official “family photo” of world leaders, almost as if cast to the side. But this year he was placed front and center, right between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, the host.
Khashoggi was killed in October when he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, seeking papers to allow him to get married. A hit team flown in from Saudi Arabia awaited him, referring to him as the “sacrificial animal.” He was then dismembered with a bone saw, and his remains have yet to be recovered.
The Saudi government initially lied about the murder, insisting that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive. Only after Turkey produced evidence to the contrary did the Saudis acknowledge his death and arrest suspects in the killing, some of whom had ties to Crown Prince Mohammed.
But Saudi Arabia has blocked any effort to examine the chain of command. Agnès Callamard, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions for the U.N. human rights agency, found “credible evidence” that justifies the “investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s.”
That seems unlikely to happen, and it now appears Crown Prince Mohammed may resume his role on the international stage without significant cost. He can be assured of a leading role in next year’s G-20 meeting, too. After all, he is scheduled to host it.