President Putin is first leader to agree G20 talks with Saudi crown prince MBS
The announcement is a rare piece of good news for Mohammed bin Salman in a week when he has been greeted with protests as he tours the Middle East, his first overseas trip since the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The heir to the Saudi throne was snubbed by King Mohammed of Morocco, who was said by government sources in the country to have declined him an audience.
Abderrazak Makri, the leader of Algeria’s main Islamist party, Society for Peace, accused the crown prince of trying to hide his role in Khashoggi’s torture and murder. In Tunisia,demonstrators took to the streets as he landed there. The appearance of the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, in Buenos Aires will raise an awkward quandary for many other leaders attending. Saudi Arabia is a key western ally because of its oil reserves and participation in counterterrorism activities.
The UK, France and Germany and other countries have been appalled by the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to western intelligence agencies it was ordered by the crown prince.
President Erdogan, who has repeatedly hinted that MBS was behind the killing, is considering the prince’s request for a meeting. President Trump, who is reluctant to isolate Saudi Arabia and the crown prince, has nonetheless said that he is not planning a formal meeting with him in Argentina.
Mr Putin has avoided any outright criticism of MBS or Saudi Arabia, instead levelling the blame at Washington. “As far as I know, [Khashoggi] used to live in the US . . . In this regard the US has a certain responsibility,” Mr Putin said last month. “We do not know what happened in reality. So why should we undertake any steps to deteriorate our relations with Saudi Arabia?”
Moscow and Riyadh signed an oil production co-operation agreement in 2016 which helped to clear a glut of crude and revive prices. Saudi Arabia is now asking Russia to cut oil production again after prices tumbled by 23 per cent last month.
Mr Putin may use his leverage with MBS to keep the taps open on Russian oil. High production is more important to Russian producers than high prices, owing to incentives from Moscow. Mr Putin is also looking to an alliance with Saudi Arabia to help him expand his political and military influence in the Middle East. The two men last met in Russia in June during the World Cup finals. They sat either side of Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, as the home team beat Saudi Arabia 5-0.
The crown prince faces legal problems when he arrives in Buenos Aires. Human Rights Watch has asked Argentina to investigate his role in alleged crimes against humanity in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is conducting a military campaign, and in the murder of Khashoggi. An Argentine judge reviewing the complaint asked his country’s foreign ministry yesterday to seek information from Turkey, Yemen and the International Criminal Court.
Hannah Lucinda Smith & Stephen Gibbs