Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is used to being the centre of attention. In the 18 months since he become Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, the world’s most powerful politicians have lined up to embrace the young royal as he criss-crossed the globe bearing promises of deals and multibillion-dollar investments.
But when he attends the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires he will be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Making his first appearance on the international stage since the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Prince Mohammed arrived early in the Argentine capital on Wednesday for the first major test of how toxic his brand has become.
For many of the world leaders who will assemble at a riverside conference centre on Friday, the challenge will be to navigate between wanting to be seen as tough in their response to the killing and the pragmatic need to maintain relations with the world’s top oil exporter and their most powerful Arab ally.
Some of those who just a few months ago were lauding the 33-year-old crown prince may now snub him, promising awkward moments as world leaders huddle for the two-day meeting.
US president Donald Trump, who has flip-flopped between calling the Khashoggi killing the “worst cover-up ever” and denouncing media reports that the CIA had concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the operation, is not scheduled to hold a formal meeting with the heir-apparent.
But the White House said it could not rule out “interactions” with him. Prince Mohammed has developed strong ties to the US president’s inner circle, particularly with Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law.
“We are going to see a kind of diplomatic dance . . . but it’s all about him touching down and everybody saying ‘[Prince Mohammed] is the only game in town, but we’ve got to manage the messaging back at home’,” said Neil Quilliam, a Middle East expert at Chatham House. “Even if it’s a snub, they will try and make it not too much of a snub.”
Theresa May, the UK prime minister, whose office hailed Prince Mohammed’s visit to Britain in March as a “significant boost for UK prosperity” also has no plans for a one-on-one meeting with the Saudi leader. But Downing Street said it does not want its relationship with Prince Mohammed, who could rule the kingdom for decades, to colour broader relations with Saudi Arabia.
His most awkward encounter could be with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led the charge against the crown prince after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Mr Erdogan, a strongman often on the opposing side to Saudi Arabia in regional power struggles, has not explicitly accused Prince Mohammed of ordering the veteran journalist’s killing. But Turkish officials privately make clear they hold him responsible.
A steady drip-feed of leaks from Ankara, including grisly details of how a 15-man Saudi hit squad killed Khashoggi and sliced up his body, has been widely viewed as an attempt to turn international opinion against Prince Mohammed.
Still, the crown prince, who has denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s killing, has requested a meeting with the Turkish president. “Erdogan’s answer was: ‘Let’s see,’” said Mevlut Cavusoglu, Ankara’s foreign minister, in an interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “At the moment, there is no reason not to meet the crown prince.”
While Riyadh has sought to blame Khashoggi’s killing on a rogue operation, Turkey insists it was a premeditated murder. Western politicians also believe that any operation is unlikely to have been authorised without Prince Mohammed’s consent.
An Argentine judge has requested information from Turkey, the International Criminal Court and Yemen — where Saudi Arabia leads an Arab coalition fighting Houthi rebels— to determine whether there are any legal proceedings under way against Prince Mohammed in connection with alleged war crimes after the NGO Human Rights Watch filed a submission to the federal prosecutor on Monday.
The judge has also asked the Argentine foreign ministry to clarify the diplomatic status of G20 leaders attending the summit.
A foreign ministry official told the FT that Prince Mohammed enjoys diplomatic immunity as the leader of his country’s delegation and cannot be detained. The official added that any legal proceedings would need to be elevated to the Supreme Court.
Prince Mohammed will, however, have at least one ally who will not be embarrassed to embrace him: Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Mr Putin, who considers Prince Mohammed an important ally in the pushback against western sanctions imposed on Russia, plans to meet the Saudi leader in Buenos Aires, the president’s spokesman said.
“Of course, they will have an opportunity to talk on the sidelines, one way or another,” said Dmitry Peskov.
Prince Mohammed’s decision to step out into the international spotlight reveals his own sense of confidence.
Speculation has been rife that King Salman may be forced to rein in his son after the Khashoggi killing. But Riyadh is determined to draw a line under the affair.
Khalid al-Sulaiman, a Saudi columnist, wrote in Okaz daily: “The Turks are mistaken if they think the world’s great powers would sacrifice their interests with Saudi Arabia or that the world would risk destabilising its economy because of this incident.”
Aaron David Miller, a vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the US, in particular, was being drawn back to business as usual by a combination of Saudi oil and money and “the magical thinking with which the Trump administration has elevated Saudi Arabia in its regional strategy, like a moth to flame”.
But, he added: “You could argue the degree of brazenness of going to the G20 is only exceeded by the brazenness of the act.”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams and James Politi in Washington, Ahmed Al Omran and Henry Mance in London, Laura Pitel in Ankara, Benedict Mander in Buenos Aires and Henry Foy in Moscow