Saudi hosts muted virtual G20 amid Covid-19 and rights criticism

Campbell MacDiarmid
·4 min read
Billboards advertise the G20 Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Reuters
Billboards advertise the G20 Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Reuters

The G20 Riyadh summit this weekend is unlikely to be the high-profile event Saudi officials hoped would rehabilitate the kingdom’s reputation and highlight Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s reform plans. But it is coronavirus rather than the chorus of criticism that has taken the shine off the conference, which is now being held virtually.   

Saudi’s involvement in Yemen’s war, the ongoing detention of women’s rights activists, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate has provoked global outrage since 2018, when many leaders snubbed Saudi’s 2018 “Davos in the desert” conference.

While some returned for the 2019 Future Investment Initiative, Saudi had hoped that hosting this year’s gathering of the world’s largest economies would cement its re-acceptance in the global community. But rather than photo ops of world leaders at Saudi palaces, the summit on November 21-22 will more resemble a series of Zoom meetings, chaired by Saudi’s King Salman.   

“Covid put a spanner in the works,” said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They know that, and I think everyone's been honest with them that it's been a bit of a washout.”

On the agenda of the 15th meeting of the group focused on international economic cooperation, Saudi has placed a Covid-19 action plan to finance pandemic preparedness and restore growth, including debt relief for the poorest countries.

But critics arguing that hosting the summit also plays an important role in Saudi Arabia's multi-billion dollar “reputational laundering” strategy have called on other G20 leaders to hold their Saudi hosts accountable for human rights abuses. 

Among those calling for a boycott is a Saudi Bedouin tribe which has been evicted to make way for a futuristic megacity, US Congressmen alarmed by Saudi’s failure to resolve the Khashoggi murder, and the fiancee of the slain journalist.

Hatice Cengiz gave virtual testimony to the UK parliament on Wednesday, asking Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to attend.

“I ask that you do not sit at the virtual table with him, he’s not a man you want to be friends with,” she said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA assessed was likely responsible for ordering her fiancee’s murder.

“The crown prince must be challenged mercilessly over the shocking murder of my Jamal. He must feel that the consequences are severe and momentous.”

Human rights defenders had hoped the international attention attracted by the summit might encourage Saudi leaders to free political prisoners, including women’s advocate Loujain al-Hathoul, whose family said began a hunger strike on October 26. 

But after the Guardian reported on November 10 that the Saudi ambassador to the UK said the kingdom was considering clemency for detained female activists, the embassy in London denied his comments.

Ms al-Hathoul will be spending her 920th day in prison when Saudi Arabia hosts the summit, her sister Lina Alhathloul said. “Is anyone going to ask about her?”

The kingdom meanwhile may be hoping to ignore the criticism with a business-as-usual approach, something that even critics acknowledge may be effective strategy. 

Oxfam said this week that other G20 countries have sold more than $17 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since it became involved in Yemen’s war in 2015, noting that the same countries had given Yemen a third that amount in aid. 

The British charity hopes that the election of Joe Biden – who was said he would stop selling arms to Saudi to be used in Yemen – represents an opportunity for the global community to take a fresh approach towards Saudi and human rights after the Trump-era.

“Although American foreign policy doesn't change much, we must try,” said Oxfam’s Yemen country director Muhsin Siddiquey.

The kingdom may be concerned at the exit of a US president disinterested in human rights, said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East. “There’s no doubt that the Trump administration set a policy that it didn’t matter, that Saudi could literally do anything in terms of violating human rights – up to murdering a journalist in a foreign country  – and the US wouldn’t do anything.”

He continued: “They got a blank cheque from Trump, they absolutely are concerned about Biden coming in. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the US is going to take a hard line with them.”