COVID offers blow to Saudi Arabia’s G20 summit ambitions

RIYADH/BEIRUT, Nov 20 (Reuters) – When Saudi Arabia, the world’s high oil exporter and a number one U.S. ally, took over the G20 presidency in December 2019, hopes within the kingdom had been excessive.

By Marwa Rashad and Raya Jalabi

A worldwide summit would assist rehabilitate the nation on the worldwide stage and switch the world’s attentions to key reforms launched by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open up the dominion and diversify the financial system.

However as a substitute of hoped-for photograph ops in opulent palaces, this yr’s summit is usually digital as a result of COVID-19, dealing a blow to the prince’s ambitions in a yr of worldwide financial downturn.

Although circumstances are removed from superb, “the present should go on, and Saudis need to profit from the assembly,” stated Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar on the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

High of the Group of 20 main economies’ agenda is a COVID-19 motion plan and measures to stem the pandemic’s influence on world economies, together with debt reduction for the poorest nations.

Saudi Arabia’s fame has been battered since 2018, with a world furore over the homicide of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the battle in Yemen and the continued detention of girls’s rights activists arrested that yr.

Overseas direct funding, a linchpin of the crown prince’s financial reform plans, was additionally lacklustre, with Funding Minister Khalid al Falih saying he anticipated a slowdown this yr as a result of pandemic.

This weekend’s Leaders Summit was seen as an opportunity to showcase the dominion’s budding tourism and leisure industries: VIP journeys had been deliberate to tourism landmarks, together with the $500 billion Neom metropolis of the long run mega-project, two international diplomats within the area advised Reuters.

Discussions about an in-person summit had been nonetheless being held in late September, and Saudi and international leaders confirmed their bodily attendance, the diplomats stated. The announcement days later that the summit, chaired by King Salman who had surgical procedure in July, can be held nearly took many unexpectedly.

The king has hailed the dominion’s G20 presidency as proof of its key function within the world financial system. On Thursday, the media minister stated that managing the G20 and attaining nice outcomes throughout the pandemic was a supply of satisfaction.


The occasion’s digital nature does not less than align with Saudi Arabia’s formidable digital agendas and technology-focused initiatives, “one shiny spot amid the coronavirus-related disruptions,” Mogielnicki stated.

The dominion promoted the occasion at house with a strong media marketing campaign, and on billboards all through its cities.

In opposition to this backdrop is a flurry of exercise by human rights teams and western lawmakers who’ve referred to as on G20 capitals to boycott the occasion, renewing world consideration on Saudi Arabia’s rights report.

Dozens of lawmakers in Britain, the European Union and the USA have referred to as on their governments to press Saudi Arabia on human rights forward of the summit, or to withdraw. The mayors of London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles have boycotted the occasion.

Main human rights teams will maintain a G20 counter-summit on Friday centered on “human rights violations within the kingdom,” with U.S. lawmakers, Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz, and the households of imprisoned activists, together with Loujain al-Hathloul, who’s greater than three weeks right into a starvation strike to protest her circumstances in detention.

“As an alternative of signalling its concern for Saudi Arabia’s severe abuses, the G20 is bolstering the Saudi authorities’s well-funded publicity efforts to painting the nation as ‘reforming’ regardless of a big enhance in repression since 2017,” stated Michael Web page, deputy Center East director at Human Rights Watch.

Few fees towards Hathloul and the opposite activists have been made public, however they embrace contacting international journalists, diplomats and rights teams.

Earlier this month, the Saudi ambassador to Britain stated the dominion was contemplating clemency for a few of the jailed girls’s rights activists. However the embassy subsequently walked again the feedback, which had been dismissed by rights teams as a “PR stunt” forward of the summit.

Saudi Arabia jailed eight individuals for between seven and 20 years for Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi officers denied Prince Mohammed performed a task, however in 2019 he indicated some private accountability, saying “it occurred below my watch.” (Reporting by Marwa Rashad in Riyadh and Raya Jalabi in Beirut; extra reporting by Davide Barbuscia; modifying by Giles Elgood)