Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is rehabilitating himself on the world stage. He is currently on his first overseas trip since the killing of the Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
First, with baby steps as he visits the United Arab Emirates, his closest allies in the Gulf region. But his ambition, as ever, is huge and impetuous.
His current tour is expected to take him to the G20 summit of the world’s most powerful leaders in Buenos Aires next week. President Donald Trump will also be there.
Bin Salman’s strategy isn’t just about rehabilitating himself so he can one day be King; it is also about ensuring that his ambitious Vision 2030 to modernize Saudi Arabia can be fully realized.
His top priority will be to build confidence among global elites that he has the ability to lead the desert kingdom.
Without their buy-in, and the international investment it brings, he’ll flounder at home.
It is going to be a monumental uphill battle. Few doubt his culpability – directly or indirectly – in the brutal murder, dismemberment and disposal of Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s body hasn’t been found and Saudi Arabia’s faltering narrative of what took place has yet to be fully explained. It will likely continue to be challenged long after bin Salman returns from his rehab tour.
To pull off what would seem to be a near-impossible rewrite of his current slate, he needs to have intelligent conversations that show he is capable of thoughtful, compromising leadership, not just the hard-charging dynamism he is renowned for. Hence the baby steps.
By starting in the UAE, he picked Saudi’s staunchest ally – the first to back him following Khashoggi’s murde – and guaranteed that his tour gets off on the right footing.
Unsurprisingly, his Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed, showered bin Salman with praise. But not exactly in the manner that bin Salman might have liked – his importance, rather than his country’s: “The UAE-Saudi relations are an exceptional role model for brotherly ties that go down to the annals of history.”
Bin Salman has often been seen as bin Zayed’s protegee. Khashoggi’s killing is bad news for both of them.
Even worse for bin Zayed would be a Saudi Arabia in chaos and embroiled in a leadership struggle, risking turning his massive neighbor from dependable enforcer of their joint endeavors to unstable liability.
But bin Salman has every reason to believe his trip to Buenos Aires will be rewarded by the biggest hand up he can get with his rehab: the hand of US President Donald Trump.
Trump’s statement earlier this week countering reports that the CIA’s analysis that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing, stated: “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
It has been seized upon by Riyadh to bolster bin Salman’s claims of innocence.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told CBS this week: “what we’ve heard is the President say that the CIA report is not what people says it is and so we have to go by this.”
Trump isn’t the only one who could give bin Salman what he wants: valuable face time in Argentina next week. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to be moving in that direction too.
His Foreign Minister said on Friday that Erdogan is ready to engage: “In their latest phone call, bin Salman said he wants to meet our President in Argentina. There is no reason not to meet. And on that meeting, our President would say what we think and share what we have. There is no obstacle for that.”
No doubt there will be room for a frank exchange. MBS has no love for Erdogan. He views him as in league with the Muslim Brotherhood and antithetical to Saudi’s existence. Erdogan, however, recognizes his own limits: a weakening economy could lead to his own ouster. Keeping some semblance of relationship with Riyadh could hold that off.
Bin Salman can also be expected to want to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping – not that he needs to rehab himself with them. Neither has blamed him for having Khashoggi killed, but it would serve to burnish the optics of Trump’s claims that billions of dollars of US business with Saudi are at stake.
But of all his meetings in Argentina, the one with Trump could be the trickiest. Not just for the obvious reason that so much depends on it: like the nuclear power stations Saudi wants to buy from Westinghouse that critics fear could be used to make a nuclear bomb, but because under different circumstances bin Salman would avoid it.
The last time the pair met Trump produced theatrical-size checks, the sort of thing lottery winners are given, to show how much money Saudi business is worth to the US. Bin Salman was furious.
But the Crown Prince is in a hole right now and it’s a mark of how much humble pie he needs to eat that he will engage with Trump.
The choreography is also going to be important for bin Salman: he has already learned that being close to Trump when Trump is close to a microphone can be a danger – and right now he doesn’t need any slip-ups.
Loose lines like those in Trump’s statement this week – “Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood” – can be damaging.
The whole tone and texture of Trump’s endorsement will have been deeply troubling. Had it had a more Presidential feel, it would have been more to the Saudi’s liking and bin Salman’s needs.
Right now, the kingdom and its close Gulf allies are balancing the chaos that a challenge to bin Salman rule could bring with the belief that he can bring change to the kingdom.
His father saw in him someone big on drive and ambition. His critics see someone coming up short on age, patience and control.
The regional consensus for now seems to be to get the train back on track.
Trump is the gateway to much of that, and unless something changes between now and the G20, the door seems open. But it will only get MBS so far: full international rehab is still way beyond bin Salman’s reach.