TMonths ago, the royal family of Saudi Arabia anticipated the holding of the G20 summit this weekend with the conviction that the meeting of world leaders in Riyadh would be a showcase of the kingdom’s evolution. By extension, it would be an opportunity to rehabilitate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s image after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a squad of Saudi state thugs.
Those hopes run the risk of being unfulfilled.
The coronavirus pandemic has required the summit to be held online. The Riyadh conference center will be empty. The capital itself, green for the occasion, can’t wait for an avalanche of visitors. Photos of leaders shaking hands on red carpets will be replaced by the now familiar split video screen. The meat and drink of the summits – the personal, artificial, bilateral nightly “drama” about writing communiqués in the leaders’ hotel rooms – will be replaced by virtual and soulless discussions.
The statement itself is likely to be unambitious about the scale and duration of Covid-related debt relief for poor countries. The sense that the summit marks Donald Trump’s swan song also doesn’t inject momentum.
But it comes at a critical time for Saudi Arabia itself. Trump was a major if rebellious ally of the ruling House of Saud, choosing Riyadh as the destination for his first overseas trip in 2017. Joe Biden, by contrast, has promised a review of US-Saudi relations, saying that it will arrive in Saudi Arabia ”. the outcast declares that they are “.
David Rundell, a former American diplomat with 20 years of experience in Riyadh, even stated this week that Saudi Arabia’s definition of success at the summit will be to maintain its connection with the rest of the world, which the election of Joe Biden has put into question. . “Saudi Arabia has to defend its case,” he said.
He is busy doing so, pointing to the strenuous efforts he has made to host the G20. Abdulaziz Sager, in charge of the summit, said there were 127 previous online meetings in which academics, city mayors, businessmen and ministers participated. By one estimate, 17,000 people have participated in participation groups.
Hanaa Almoaibed of the King Faisal Research Center admitted that “it had been a great disappointment that the event had to be posted online,” but said the year had sparked unprecedented civic engagement.
The country’s highest-ranking diplomat, his US ambassador Reema Bandar Al Saud, used a keynote address this week to send a message to the incoming Biden administration. He said his country was the United States’ greatest ally in the fight against extremism and terrorism and claimed that some Saudi critics, on the contrary, “just want to burn everything down.” Repeating the buzzword claims about the country’s Vision 2030 project, she said that her country was an inclusive society committed to gender equality.
“Some critics cling to outdated, outdated and completely outdated views of the Kingdom,” al-Saud said. “We recognize that we have to do a better job of correcting an inaccurate and distorted view of the kingdom. When challenged on human rights, we must better explain that progress does not happen overnight, change is incremental, progress is not a straight line but a curve, and the curve of the curve is towards equity “.
He may be right, but even a hint from his brother Khalid, the UK ambassador, that clemency could be sought for some of the country’s jailed women before the G20 was rejected.
As for the war in Yemen, seen by many Democrats as an immoral and useless endeavor, he blamed the Houthis for walking away from the table and noted that more than 300 ballistic missiles had been fired at Saudi Arabia. And about Saudi Arabia’s big rival Iran, he said there was a reason why Saudi Arabia was chairing the G20 and Iran was isolated. Saudi graduates, he said, were flocking to return to Riyadh. In Tehran there was nothing but a brain drain.
But for all their advocacy, Saudi diplomats have been challenged on how all this adherence to diversity and empowerment squares with reality. Special emphasis is placed on the imprisonment of Loujain Al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist.
Hathloul, who campaigned for the right to drive, could have been a symbol of a newly emancipated Saudi Arabia, but instead is on day 23 of a hunger strike. She has been detained without charge since May 2018 for campaigning for women’s rights.
Likewise, the house arrest since March of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has lost the ruling family’s most prestigious friends. His deal at the hands of his successor and cousin Mohammed bin Salman is now the subject of an investigation by an independent panel in the UK led by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt. His treatment reveals how bin Salman, once entertained by the West, seems in the minds of Western politicians incapable of ruling by consensus.
Lina Al-Hathoul, Loujain’s sister, understands the potential value of the summit to her sister’s jailers. “Holding major events like the G20 not only gives the kingdom the image of a modern and powerful country and a global economic power, but also draws international attention away from the reality of rights abuses that occur miles away. ”. He urged Saudi leaders to be smarter and “not embarrass themselves” by not turning a new page before Biden’s arrival.
In the UK, it has been supported by Helena Kennedy, author of a new report on the treatment of women detained in Saudi Arabia. “No decent nation should attend this G20 charade without demanding that these women be released,” said Lady Kennedy. “These women have been detained in terrible conditions because they are an affront to the power structures in Saudi Arabia.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said she could see “the principled and deeply held arguments” for a full boycott of the summit, but added: “I tend to feel like it’s better to be in the room arguing and doing the point was not to do so. “
But he said it was not clear that the UK government was building alliances to confront Saudi Arabia. “The UK cannot afford to remain silent on human rights abuses; it undermines our position in the world when we are morally inconsistent with whom we are willing to call. “
Similar pressure is being put on German and French leaders, and the danger for the Saudis is that the focus of the summit will remain on its hosts and not on the issues to be discussed.
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