Tuesday 17 September 2019

Wynia’s Week: How Máxima paves the way for Mark

Photo: Maarten Goeman

What is the link between Jamal Kashoggi, queen Máxima and the international prestige of the Netherlands? It’s something to do with a visit to the Obamas  in 2009 but most of all it’s the Máxima factor, writes commentator Syp Wynia.

 The country almost had an apoplectic fit last week when queen Máxima was photographed in Japan having a quiet chat with Saudi heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman, who is often regarded as the de facto ruler. The queen, it seemed, had not uttered a word about the savage killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi for which the crown prince is widely held responsible.

VVD MPs were the only ones to brush aside the incident but newspapers were indignant: Máxima, a UN special advocate for inclusive finance and development, should be protected against putting herself in situations like this, they said. The French UN special rapporteur on the Kashoggi case even called her ‘complicit’.

Not that the Kashoggi killing is the only matter the Saudi regime should be held to account for. Exporting extremism to the rest of the world, the war in Yemen, the oppression at home – the list goes on. But the Kashoggi murder has captured the world’s imagination.

‘Totally defendable’

Prime minister Mark Rutte and foreign minister Stef Blok – both VVD – were putting up a vigorous defence of the queen’s actions (speaking of women and finance, not mentioning Kashoggi). She did exactly what she had to do, Rutte said, and bringing up Kashoggi would have been inappropriate in the circumstances. ‘Totally defensible’, ‘the normal way of going about things’, he said.

Unfortunately for Stef Blok the parliamentary agenda held a committee meeting about human rights and many MPs took the opportunity to confront the minister with his ministerial responsibility for the queen. Blok said that the queen, in her role as UN special advocate,  speaks to the incoming chair of the G20 every year. And next year the summit will be chaired and organised by Saudi Arabia.

Why is Máxima at the G20?

This brings up a number of questions: what is the G20, what is the Dutch role there and why is Máxima there?

It’s like this. The world’s most successful economies are turning into a parallel version of the United Nations. Established twenty years ago in a reaction to the Asian financial crisis and grown to its present status during the financial crisis of ten years ago, the G20 forms the nucleus of world power. All big countries are members, including the big EU countries. It is like a counterpart of the UN’s safety council – another concentration of big countries – but at a presidential and prime ministerial level.

When the banking crisis hit the Netherlands in 2008 then prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende tried his best to wangle an invite to the G20. He was, in the end, invited to a special G20 in Washington, even though once there Balkenende had to return forthwith because his father died. In the event he was replaced by junior minister Jan-Kees de Jager.

 Chez the Obamas

In 2009 Máxima entered the G20 stage for the first time. With then still crown prince Willem-Alexander she visited the White House where the Obamas handed them an invite to give to the Dutch government for the G20 in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, in the background, American diplomatic pressure on the Dutch to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan had been fierce. The Americans made it abundantly clear that the ticket to the G20 was a tit-for-tat for the Dutch mission in Uruzgan (and not for the size of the Dutch economy, as many in The Hague thought at the time).

In 2010, when the Dutch left Uruzgan, the Netherlands was invited to the G20 in Canada but after that the invites dry up. Until 2017. The fact that Mark Rutte could once again rub shoulders with the mighty in Hamburg was seen as a great diplomatic achievement. Once again the Netherlands thought its economy warranted a structural place at the table.

But things were not that simple. In the spring of 2018 Rutte had a chat with the Argentinian president who was visiting The Hague about a Dutch invite to the G20 later that year in Buenos Aires. In the Hague rumour had it that the ‘Máxima factor’ might well be decisive. And so it proved. The invite landed on the mat and so did the one for Osaka a year later.

For Rutte, the G20 has become a badge of honour. The Dutch presence there is not only useful but a boost to Dutch prestige as well. Rutte is pretending to lead one of the EU’s most important economies and he can only lend credence to this by being in on the G20’s private chats, especially those of the EU countries. A typical example is last week’s EU top job division, cooked up  in Osaka by the German chancellor, the Spanish prime minister and the Dutch prime minister.

With Putin in Hamburg

What exactly Rutte is gaining by being at the G20 is not always clear. In Hamburg he talked to Russian president Vladimir Putin about downed flight MH17, that much we know. And in Buenos Aires he spoke to Trump on matters of a general nature. In Osaka Frans Timmermans bagged the chair of the European Commission for five minutes only to be ousted by German minister Ursula von der Leyen.

And then there is Máxima. She is an international star, something that people in the Netherlands perhaps do not always realise. Although not born a royal she adds the glamour of royalty. Time put her in the top 100 of influential people where you will look in vain for either Rutte or her husband Willem-Alexander.

Máxima also has the interesting privilege, courtesy of her role as a UN special advocate, of being able to put in an appearance at any important international gathering. She is a fixture, for example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos where the rich and powerful hold their annual meeting.

Máxima ‘honorary chair’

Since 2011 Máxima is ‘honorary chair’of a G20 global partnership for financial inclusion. That means she has permanent access to G20 circles while the Dutch government does not. It would be very odd if Mark Rutte didn’t use the ‘Máxima factor’ to keep his hand in at the G20 and even gaining a permanent place.

It’s not surprising then that both the prime minister and the foreign minister were adamant Máxima’s encounter with Mohammed bin Salman, including her silence on Kashoggi, was nothing to get worked up about. By the way, Máxima spoke to another five prominent members of the Saudi government. I wonder whether Mark Rutte will be invited again next year. Máxima will be there, that much is certain.

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