Amid international outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was positioned at the very edge of the traditional “family photo” of world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in November.
Looking every bit a pariah, Mohammed walked away alone after the photo was taken as other leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations mingled and as protesters outside the venue demanded his arrest.
Just half a year later, the crown prince is no longer isolated at the G-20. In the photograph of world leaders taken Friday in Osaka, Japan, Mohammed was front and center — standing between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the event’s host.
For his supporters, it is yet another sign that Mohammed survived questions over his mercurial de facto rule and has been welcomed back by the global political establishment.
“Clearly he has retained a lot of his stature,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the pro-Riyadh Arabia Foundation in Washington, noting that the crown prince had been well-received by the leaders of India, China, Japan and South Korea in the past six months.
“If anything, his high visibility at G-20 is only enhancing” his reputation, Shihabi said. “His robes also help.”
The crown prince’s traditional attire may not be the only thing that made him more visible in this year’s photograph. Official protocol dictates where world leaders stand in the family photo, with the general rules being that heads of state, rather than heads of government or international organizations, are at the front and those who’ve spent more time in office are closer toward the center.
Though Mohammed is not technically a head of state and is less senior than some others, Saudi Arabia is also scheduled to host next year’s G-20 summit in Riyadh.
David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and chief executive of the humanitarian organization International Rescue Committee, said the largely warm welcome of Mohammed and other supposed pariahs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the summit reflected an age of impunity in global politics.
“All those countries that have a relationship with Saudi Arabia need to use those relationships in a way that curbs the failed war strategy in Yemen,” Miliband said about the upcoming summit in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed, 33, was initially celebrated on the world stage for spearheading an ambitious domestic reform strategy that sought to not only remake Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy but also loosen conservative religious social conventions.
But the crown prince’s role in launching Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen, which came as Riyadh took aggressive positions against Qatar and Iran, called into doubt the wisdom of his foreign policy. The killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October reinforced the notion that his government cared little about human rights and drew a global backlash.
Last year, some world leaders had avoided the young Saudi royal, while others had criticized him to his face. An overheard conversation between Mohammed and Emmanuel Macron suggested the French president was privately upset with him. “You never listen to me,” Macron said. But other world leaders still greeted him enthusiastically. Putin laughed as he slapped hands with Mohammed — an image that Miliband said epitomized the “new arrogance of power” among those who act with perceived impunity.
Despite U.S. congressional efforts to cut off weapons sales to the Saudi kingdom and U.N. calls for an investigation of his alleged role in the killing of Khashoggi, there was little sign of trouble when Mohammed met Trump at the family photo Friday: The two leaders shook hands and smiled.
The U.S. president is due to have breakfast with the Saudi royal Saturday morning, Bloomberg News reported.