Reform rhetoric at odds with reality as Saudi Arabia hosts G20 summit | Saudi Arabia

JA few months ago, the royal family of Saudi Arabia planned to host the G20 summit this weekend, convinced that the gathering of world leaders in Riyadh would be a showcase of the evolution of the kingdom. By extension, it would be a chance to rehabilitate the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a squad of Saudi state thugs.

These hopes risk being disappointed.

The coronavirus pandemic demanded that the summit be held online. The Riyadh conference center will remain empty. The capital itself, vegetated for the occasion, cannot expect any influx of visitors. Photo ops of executives shaking hands on red carpets will be replaced by the now familiar split-screen video. The meat and drink of the summits – the two-sided, contrived late-night personal “drama” over the wording of the statement in the hotel rooms of the leaders – will all be replaced by soulless virtual discussions.

The statement itself is likely to be unambitious about the scale and duration of Covid-related debt relief for poor countries. Nor does the sense that the summit marks Donald Trump’s swansong give him any impetus.

But it comes at a critical time for Saudi Arabia himself. Trump was a capricious big ally of the ruling House of Saud, choosing Riyadh as the destination for his first foreign trip in 2017. Joe Biden, on the other hand, promised a review of US-Saudi relations and said he would make Saudi Arabia “the pariah state that they are”.

David Rundell, a former US diplomat with 20 years of experience in Riyadh, even claimed this week that Saudi Arabia’s definition of success at the summit would be to maintain its connection with the rest of the world, which the election of Joe Biden questioned. “Saudi Arabia needs to make its case,” he said.

Donald Trump with Mohammed bin Salman. The president is an ally of the ruling House of Saud and made the kingdom his first foreign trip in 2017. Photography: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

He is busy doing so, pointing to the diligent efforts he has made to welcome the G20. Abdulaziz Sager, head of the summit, said there had been 127 online pre-meetings involving academics, mayors, businessmen and ministers. By one estimate, 17,000 people were involved in engagement groups.

Hanaa Almoaibed of King Faisal Research Center admitted “it was a huge disappointment that the event had to be moved online”, but said the year had sparked unprecedented civic engagement.

The country’s top diplomat, its US ambassador Reema Bandar Al Saud, used a keynote address this week to send a message to the new Biden Administration. She said her country was America’s biggest ally in the fight against extremism and terrorism and claimed that some Saudi critics, on the other hand, “just want to burn it all down”. Picking up on the fashionable claims about the country’s Vision 2030 project, she said her country was an inclusive society committed to gender equality.

“Some critics cling to outdated, outmoded and completely outdated visions of the Kingdom,” al-Saud said. “We recognize that we need to do a better job of correcting an inaccurate and distorted view of the kingdom. When we are challenged on human rights, we need to explain better that progress does not happen overnight, that change is gradual, that progress is not a straight line but a curve, and that the elbow of the curve goes towards equity.

She may be right, but even a hint from her brother Khalid – the UK ambassador – that a clemency case could be invoked for some of the country’s jailed women ahead of the G20 has been disavowed.

As for the war Yemen, seen by many Democrats as a wasteful and immoral undertaking, she accused the Houthis of walking away from the table and pointed out that more than 300 ballistic missiles had been fired at Saudi Arabia. And on Saudi Arabia’s great rival, Iran, she said there was a reason why Saudi Arabia was chairing the G20, and Iran was isolated. Saudi graduates, she said, were flocking to return to Riyadh. In Tehran, there was nothing but a brain drain.

Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi women's rights activist
The imprisonment of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul gives a hollow ring to the kingdom’s claims to champion women’s equality. Photograph: Reuters

But despite all their pleas, Saudi diplomats have found themselves challenged on how all this embrace of diversity and empowerment matches reality. Particular focus is on the imprisonment of the women’s rights activist Loujain Al Hathloul.

Hathloul, who campaigned for the right to drive, could have been the symbol of a new emancipated Saudi Arabia, but is on the 23rd day of a hunger strike. She has been detained without charge since May 2018 for campaign for women’s rights.

Likewise, the house arrest since March of the former crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef lost the ruling family of more prestigious friends. His treatment at the hands of his successor and cousin Mohammed bin Salman is now being investigated by an independent panel in the UK led by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt. His treatment reveals how bin Salman, once celebrated by the West, seems in the minds of Western politicians incapable of governing by consensus.

Lina Al-Hathoul, sister of Loujain, understands the potential value of the summit for her sister’s jailers. “Hosting major events such as the G20 not only gives the kingdom the image of a powerful and modern country and a global economic powerhouse, but also diverts international attention from the reality of the rights violations that occur a few miles away.” She urged Saudi leaders to be smarter and “not embarrass themselves” by not turning another page before Biden arrives.

Former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef's house arrest is also seen as a sign the kingdom is cracking down on criticism
The house arrest of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is also seen as a sign that the kingdom is cracking down on criticism. Photograph: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

She was backed in the UK by Helena Kennedy, the author of a new report on the treatment of female prisoners in Saudi Arabia. “No decent nation should attend this G20 charade without demanding that these women be freed,” Lady Kennedy said. “These women have been held in appalling conditions because they are an affront to the power structures in Saudi Arabia.”

Shadow Secretary of State Lisa Nandy said she could see “the principled and deeply held arguments” for a full boycott of the summit, but added: “I tend to think it’s best to be in the room to have the argument and make the point that outside not to.

But she said it was unclear whether the British government was building alliances to take on 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 who we are willing to call.

Similar pressure is being exerted on German and French leaders, and the danger for the Saudis is that the focus of the summit remains on its hosts, not on the issues that need to be discussed.

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