Saudi Arabia and human rights activists vie for the Kingdom’s image in the G20

BEIRUT, Lebanon – For Saudi Arabia, hosting the Group of 20 summit in Riyadh this year was supposed to solidify its global stature. The heads of state of the richest nations in the world were to be awestruck by the kingdom’s rugged beauty and its changing society – and encouraged to let its war in Yemen and the murder of a prominent journalist drift into the past.

For critics of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the event turned out to be very different: a golden opportunity to shed light on the abuses committed by the kingdom and to put pressure on the leaders. the world to embarrass its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It should not live up to the hopes of both sides. Instead, the coronavirus has effectively reduced the G-20 summit – like so many meetings this year – to a giant webinar.

This may not be very bad news for Prince Mohammed. Despite the fierce campaign by activists, no state has chosen to boycott the virtual event to be held on Saturday and Sunday, making it a milestone in the prince’s rehabilitation among world leaders.

“Obviously it didn’t go as planned, but it may have been a blessing” for the Saudis, said Karen Young, resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Middle Eastern economies .

Heads of state and other dignitaries who might have been reluctant to appear in photos in Riyadh have less to lose in an online event, she said, as the summit continues to advance the kingdom’s goal. to claim a place among the powerful countries that he considers his peers.

“A virtual conference plays on Saudi Arabia’s strengths and could avoid any embarrassing incident,” she said.

The leaders’ summit on Saturday and Sunday will address pressing global issues, including the battle against the coronavirus, how to restart damaged economies and potential financial aid for poor countries hit hard by the pandemic.

Women’s empowerment and sustainable energy development are also on the agenda and discussed at complementary events.

President Trump is expected to attend, senior administration officials say, though the agenda may highlight the United States’ inability to control the spread of the virus and Mr. Trump’s preference for energy sources traditional like oil and coal.

The G-20 is a forum for the 19 nations with the world’s largest economies and the European Union to discuss global economic affairs. The organization’s presidency rotates between five groups of countries, with one country in each group holding the office at a time. Saudi Arabia, in a group with Canada, Australia and the United States, was first named president last December.

The kingdom celebrated the title as a recognition of the importance of the world’s largest oil exporter to the global economy as well as an opportunity to present sweeping social and economic reforms championed by Prince Mohammed, whose father, the King Salman, became Saudi monarch in 2015.

Prince Mohammed has since raised some restrictions on women, promoted entertainment and tourism, and put forward plans to diversify the economy away from oil. He also led the The Saudi army in the civil war in Yemen, which has become a serious humanitarian crisis, and locked up clerics, women’s rights activists and even members of the royal family.

In 2018, Saudi operatives trapped, killed and dismembered the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, damaging Prince Mohammed’s reputation and leading to calls from activists to punish Saudi Arabia for it and other human rights violations.

These activists seized the presidency of the G-20 kingdom to campaign for their cause, pressuring members of the group to boycott the summit or use it as a platform to call for the release of the detainees.

Last month, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz used his speech at a related event hosted by Saudi Arabia to call for a minute’s silence for Mr Khashoggi and a group of women who have been arrested after opposing and defying the kingdom’s old ban. on women driving. The ban was lifted in 2018, but some of the women are still in detention.

“If this meeting does not address violations of these human rights and those of other countries around the world, it cannot hope to create inclusive societies for which we all aspire,” Stiglitz said in a statement. video of the event, called the Think 20 summit, which was captured by activists but not released on the event website.

The mayors of Paris, Los Angeles, London and New York have declined invitations to join G-20 events, and a number of advocacy groups held an alternative virtual summit this weekend to put shed light on the kingdom’s human rights record.

But the reviews appear to have had limited effect on the front page event, the Leaders’ Summit, although some were hoping individual speakers would use their platforms to raise rights issues.

“Some said: ‘This is too important, we have to plan a strategy for Covid and deal with the big economic problems,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch , about responses to his group lobbying efforts. “There were others who saw it as problematic for Saudi Arabia to get this award.”

Spokesmen for the State Department and the foreign ministries of France and Germany did not respond to requests for comment on whether they had taken into account the kingdom’s record on human rights when deciding to attend the summit.

“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a heinous crime and we have repeatedly called for justice,” wrote a British government press secretary, adding that the foreign minister raised the issue with the Saudi government during the meeting. ‘a visit in March.

Mr Coogle said he was struck by the focus of the Saudi G-20 agenda on women’s empowerment as prominent Saudi women activists were “imprisoned, silenced or in exile”.

“It demands the attention of the participants,” he said. “It’s not something that can be swept under the rug.”

Reporting was provided by Mark Landler from London, Norimitsu Onishi from Paris, Katrin Bennhold from Berlin and Lara Jakes and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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