World News

Saudi Prince Faces G-20 Leaders, Drawing a Laugh and a Confrontation

Posted December 1, 2018 12:09 a.m. EST

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia exchanged laughs and clasped hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday in an incongruous moment of apparent celebration as they took their seats among world leaders gathered in Buenos Aires for an economic summit.

It was the surest sign yet that the crown prince can still expect a warm welcome from at least some heads of state even after U.S. intelligence agencies and many Western officials have concluded that he authorized the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist ambushed two months ago by Saudi agents in a consulate in Istanbul. The prince has denied advanced knowledge of the killing.

The Group of 20 summit, a gathering of the leaders of the world’s largest economies, is a closely watched test for Crown Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom.

An Argentine prosecutor has begun an inquiry into potential criminal charges against the crown prince for human rights abuses. Rights groups have accused him of responsibility for the possible torture of Khashoggi and certain Saudi prisoners, as well as for war crimes committed by Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen.

Argentine authorities said there was no chance of any legal action before the end of the two-day meeting, but some world leaders had said that they might confront him over the killing.

French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to do just that. When he met with Crown Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the summit, a microphone captured fragments of their dialogue. Macron stood in a gray suit with a stern face just inches from Crown Prince Mohammed, nodding his head and smiling awkwardly.

“Don’t worry,” the crown prince told the French president.

“I do worry. I am worried,” Marcon responded. “I told you.”

“You told me. Thank you very much,” Crown Prince Mohammed said, bowing his head almost bashfully.

“You know what I mean,” the French president continued, adding moments later, “You never listen to me,” and “I am a man of my word.”

“I do listen to you,” Crown Prince Mohammed insisted, adding, “It’s OK, I can deal with it.”

The crown prince also met Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, whose country sends many temporary migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, and with President Xi Jinping of China. But a video clip of Crown Prince Mohammed’s encounter with Putin was the most talked about image of the day, in part because of the delight the two leaders appeared to take in their encounter.

Putin also faced international criticism over a murder this year. Britain has concluded that Putin’s government ordered the killing of a former Russian spy living near London, a charge the Kremlin denies.

Approaching seats next to each other at a round-table at the summit meeting, Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed clapped their palms together in the air as though in a high-five. Lowering their clasped hands as the handshake continued, the prince affectionately patted Putin three times on the knuckles, and they continued to smile and laugh together as though enjoying a joke.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch had petitioned the Argentine courts this week for a criminal investigation into Crown Prince Mohammed’s potential responsibility for rights abuses, under a broad jurisdiction for such crimes in Argentine law. Although it cited the Khashoggi killing, the petition focused primarily on the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The United Nations has called the war in Yemen the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster, and United Nations experts have said both sides may have committed war crimes.

A French official said Friday that Macron had sought to discuss the Khashoggi killing, the Yemen war and the oil markets with the prince during their one-on-one conversation.