As published in The Times:
This weekend marks the fifteenth meeting of the G20, when the summit will be hosted by Saudi Arabia. The theme, “Realising Opportunities of the 21st Century for All”, will touch on the Middle East and global threats such as terrorism.
Human rights campaigners have criticised Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the conference but the kingdom has been a staunch ally of Britain in the fight against terrorism and is an important strategic partner for the West in the region.
This partnership was vital after 9/11, when the crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN) transformed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service and became a trusted partner of the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies. Four times this made him an assassination target. In 2017 MBN was replaced without ceremony as crown prince by the Saudi king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.
Many aspects of the change have been for the good. MBS has begun reforms seeking to modernise the country by rebalancing religion and secular power and to diversify the economy away from oil.
However, there is a darker side to today’s Saudi Arabia that became apparent with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two years ago, which prompted global condemnation and has raised concerns about other possible outrages. In April, for example, Abdullah al-Hamid, a leading Saudi human rights figure, died in custody. Others appear to have been targeted abroad.
Since his ousting in 2017, MBN has faced improbable charges and in March he was detained on the orders of MBS. Since then his whereabouts are unknown. Disturbing reports suggest that he is being denied access to legal advice, medical care and communication with his family.
Britain and the West cannot let this treatment of one of our longstanding allies go unchallenged. If the West is to trust MBS in his efforts to overhaul and reform Saudi Arabia, we must have assurances that our allies are not mistreated.
The politics of the ruling dynasty are a matter for the Saudis. But we and other western governments have a duty to ensure MBN’s welfare. The Biden administration is likely to expect the same, as is the British foreign secretary, who has a long commitment to human rights.
We stand at a critical juncture in the relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia. Decades of close working risk being undermined by the treatment of Muhammad bin Nayef. If our relationship is to survive, it is critical that he is shown to be safe, unharmed and well.