Saudi Arabia to chair G20 summit under shadow of pandemic

The summit which is usually an opportunity for one-on-one engagements between world leaders will give way to brief online sessions on pressing global issues.
Thursday 19/11/2020
Saudi organisers prepare for the G20 nations summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on November 18, 2020. AFP
Saudi organisers prepare for the G20 nations summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on November 18, 2020. (AFP)

LONDON--Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 summit Saturday in a first for an Arab nation, but the scaled-down virtual format could limit debate on a resurgent coronavirus pandemic and crippling economic crisis.

The two-day meeting of the world’s wealthiest nations follows a bitter US election the results of which remain disputed by President Donald Trump and comes amid criticism of what campaigners call the group’s inadequate response to the worst recession in decades.

Pressing issues

Held under the shadow of a raging pandemic, the summit which is usually an opportunity for one-on-one engagements between world leaders, is reduced to brief online sessions on pressing global issues — from climate change to growing inequality.

Discussions are expected to be dominated by the “implications of the pandemic” and “steps for reviving the global economy”, a source close to the Saudi organisers said.

New vaccine breakthroughs have raised hopes of containing the virus, which has infected 55 million people globally and left 1.3 million dead. The Paris-based OECD projects global economic output will contract by 4.5 percent this year.

Saudi organisers prepare for the G20 nations summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh as health precautions are posted in a conference sign. AFP
Saudi organisers prepare for the G20 nations summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh as health precautions are posted in a conference sign. (AFP)

G20 nations have contributed more than $21 billion to combat the pandemic, including production of vaccines, and injected $11 trillion to “safeguard” the virus-battered world economy, organisers said.

But the group faces mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults across developing nations.

Last week, G20 finance ministers declared a “common framework” for an extended debt restructuring plan for virus-ravaged countries, but campaign group Action Aid described the measure as “woefully inadequate.”

Mistrust between member states has hampered coordination, with a US Treasury official accusing China — a top creditor to poor countries — of a “lack of full participation” and transparency.

“We are facing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and women in developing countries are bearing the worst impacts of the health and economic fallout,” said Action Aid’s Katherine Tu.

“Yet the G20 has its head in the sand and is failing to respond to the urgency of the situation.”

Digital diplomacy

In a letter to G20 leaders released Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “bolder measures” and emphasised that “further debt relief will be required.”

G20 nations are moving towards unlocking additional funds from the International Monetary Fund for developing nations “soon”, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told the Financial Times.

World leaders, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, are expected to make speeches at the summit, sources close to the organisers said.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will preside over what some observers call “digital diplomacy.”

The virtual setting could frustrate “spontaneous combustion” among leaders, limiting “encounters on unscheduled subjects”, said John Kirton, director and founder of the Canada-based G20 Research Group.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch Trump defender, will be present in Saudi Arabia during the summit.

It was unclear whether Trump will speak at the event alongside world leaders, many of whom have already congratulated his successful challenger, President-elect Joe Biden.

“Trump’s actions at the summit aren’t likely to have as much of an effect as they might have in previous years,” Ryan Bohl, of US geopolitical think-tank Stratfor, said.

“Even should he not attend, his lame duck status will make that relatively palatable — it would be just one more norm he upsets on his way out.”

The summit was supposed to be a coming-out party for Saudi Arabia on the world stage.

It had planned a grand event showcasing the ambitious modernisation drive of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose international reputation was tarnished by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But the pandemic, which made a physical summit impossible, has largely dampened those hopes.

“The G20 this year will be a disappointing one overall for Saudi Arabia as a virtual conference will not showcase the kingdom’s progress in the ways Riyadh hoped,” Bohl said.

Anti-Saudi campaign

With the date of the G20 summit approaching, an anti-Saudi campaign has been active with the aim of bemuddling the successes that Saudi Arabia is expected to achieve through this summit.

The anti-Saudi campaign is also taking aim at the personal successes of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is working to show that its reform programme is capable of developing the reality of the Kingdom and enabling it to play a pivotal role in the international economic field, in addition to the role of a stabiliser in Middle East.

In recent days, Qatari and Turkish media have been moving simultaneously to circulate statements made by marginal personalities or predictably issued by rights organisations to criticise Riyadh, hoping to change the summit agenda and divert attention from economic issues.

The human rights record of Qatar and Turkey has not been without controversy, attracting international and domestic scrutiny.

While Qatar has been condemned for widespread labour abuses and its intolerance of any form of political opposition, Turkey has been scrutinised in recent years over its jailing and ongoing crackdown on activists and political figures.

President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as they gather for a group photo at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. (REUTERS)
President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as they gather for a group photo at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. (REUTERS)

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has recently shown strong determination to transcend its old image by implementing serious reforms. The kingdom, however, cannot introduce an abrupt change to both society and politics.

In the lead-up to the summit, some campaigners and jailed activists’ relatives urged world leaders to boycott the summit — or press for answers.

Key among them are the siblings of jailed activist Loujain al-Hathloul, on hunger strike for more than 20 days demanding regular family contact.

“It’s up to the leaders attending the summit to hold the Saudi government accountable, to push them to release jailed prisoners of conscience,” said Safa al-Ahmad, acting director of the London-based rights group ALQST.

“Don’t allow them to whitewash their human rights record,” Ahmad said.

A reform drive

Riyadh has been reacting to various international observations on improving the kingdom’s human rights record.

Earlier this month, Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz revealed the kingdom was considering clemency for jailed female activists ahead of its hosting of the G20 summit this month.

In an interview with The Guardian, the Saudi ambassador said internal discussions are taking place about the importance of preserving the country’s reputation and to assess the political damage the female activists’ detention is causing.

In mid-October, a Saudi Arabian governmental body said that executions have been abolished for crimes committed by minors.

The Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission, which monitors human rights-related complaints and cases, said it “has found no basis to substantiate [a] claim that Saudi prosecutors still seek the death sentences for juvenile offenders.”

“We are confident that Saudi prosecutors will fully uphold Saudi law,” the commission said, and referred to a royal order in March that abolished the death penalty for individuals convicted of crimes committed as minors.

In August last year, Saudi Arabia eased travel restrictions on women but observers say loopholes allow male relatives to curtail women’s movements and, in the worst cases, leave them marooned in prison-like shelters.

The Saudi government allowed women over the age of 21 to obtain passports without seeking the approval of “guardians” — fathers, husbands or other male relatives. The move, part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to revamp the national image, ended a long-standing rule that prompted extreme attempts to flee the kingdom.

Campaigners, however, said it is easy to sidestep the reform.

While allowing travel documents, Saudi Arabia has not done away with taghayyub — a legal provision that means “being absent” in Arabic and which has long been used to constrain women who leave home without permission.

In June 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on women driving cars. However, authorities arrested several activists before and after the move amid a broader crackdown in which scores of critics were arrested.

In April 2016, Saudi Arabia curbed the powers of religious police who had patrolled public spaces to impose strict rules on women’s dress and enforce bans on alcohol, music, prayer-time closures and the mixing of men and women.