An official ceremony at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by The White House via flickr.com. CC0 (public domain), https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/cc0/

Saudi Presidency of the G20: Kingdom of Intolerance

The G20 summit in Riyadh was intended as a celebration of Saudi Arabia as one of the most powerful and modern countries in the world. The nation’s aspirations to preen at the high-profile international event have been scuppered, not only by COVID-19, but also by the Gulf State’s dire record on human rights.

Saudi Arabia, which holds the presidency of the G20 this year, will host the summit of heads of state and government of the world’s most important industrialized and emerging countries on 21 and 22 November 2020—but only virtually. The coronavirus pandemic has averted the first direct meeting of its kind in the Arab world, which was scheduled to take place against a magnificent setting in Riyadh, overseen by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Asis.

The Islamic-conservative absolute monarch viewed the meeting as a chance of showcasing itself to the world as a regional player with global economic influence, not to mention as an advocate of sustainable development. Instead of working towards the original motto “Realizing opportunities of the 21st century for all”, in the light of the pandemic and its fallout the meeting will focus its video conferences on “protecting lives and restarting economic growth”. But COVID-19 is not the sole disruptor of the kingdom’s plans to polish its image as host of this high-profile political meeting. As the virtual summit nears, protests get louder: calling for the royal house to be denied the international political stage because of ongoing human rights violations.

The killing of journalist and blogger Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 triggered international outrage. The former supporter of the Saudi royal family, who has been living in exile in the U.S. since 2017, had incurred the wrath of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), defense minister, deputy prime minister and de facto head of government, by criticizing his authoritarian rule and the lack of pluralism. The country report of the comparative study Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) states: “While Saudi citizens enjoyed some space to discuss cultural and social issues under the previous king, Abdullah, the murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 showed the current regime’s ruthless response to any public criticism. (…) Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (supposedly under MbS’s order) drew international condemnation, creating the impression that Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of intolerance in which journalists enjoy little freedom.”

Crown Prince’s reform plans falter

The revelation of the barbaric contract killing had a particularly negative impact on the reform agenda “Vision 2030”. With this ambitious development plan, MbS aimed to diversify and future-proof the domestic economy with the help of private foreign investors, in addition to making profitable investments in foreign companies. Major “Vision 2030” projects include, for example, the construction of 50 artificial islands in the Red Sea, which are to become a luxury tourist resort, or the construction of the city of Neom, a modern megacity in the desert with an attached technology park for the development of future technologies. However, an investor conference in Riyadh, planned for the end of October 2018 under the auspices of MbS, sparked a wave of boycotts: dozens of invited company bosses and speakers cancelled their attendance, including heavyweights such as Virgin boss Richard Branson, who halted investments worth a billion-dollars in Saudi Arabia.

Even two years later, the Crown Prince’s economic vision has made scant progress. This summer, the dramatic oil-price slump as a result of the pandemic forced the government to announce austerity measures and make initial cuts in mega-projects. More and more accusations of serious human rights violations are being made against the regime – for example, the human rights activist and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize Abdullah al-Hamid died in April this year because he was refused medical assistance after a heart attack in prison – and many other alleged opponents and prominent human rights activists have been imprisoned without any legal basis. As a result, many Western companies still fear sanctions against the country or shy away from potentially tainting their reputation by doing business with Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince’s modernization project has also led to social liberalization – cinema and concert visits have become possible, women are now allowed to get their driving licenses and participate in economic life, the religious police have been disempowered, the death penalty for minors and flogging has been banned. But the Western world still seems far from ready to revert to business as usual, given the ongoing brutal persecution of critics.

Calls for boycotts, campaigns and defeats

Thus, the mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London boycotted the U20 meeting of mayors, which took place at the end of September 2020 in the context of the Saudi G20 presidency, citing its ongoing dire human rights situation.

On October 7, the European Parliament adopted a resolution denouncing human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and highlighting the brutal treatment of Ethiopian migrants held in camps in disastrous conditions. MEPs supported sanctions and called on the European Commission and Council of Ministers and EU Member States to downgrade their diplomatic and institutional representation at the G20 summit.

On October 13, Saudi Arabia was the only candidate to fail in the election of members to the UN Human Rights Council. This contrasted with others with a poor human rights record, such as China and Russia, who were elected.

Finally, on 22 October, dozens of Democratic members of Congress wrote an open letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a boycott of the summit by the U.S. administration until the Saudi authorities respond to serious human rights allegations. President Donald Trump had never joined the sharp international criticism of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, but instead emphasized the special partnership between the two countries even after the assassination of Khashoggi. With January’s change of resident at the White House, it is to be expected that the new President Joe Biden will impose tighter conditions on America’s strategic partnership with the Saudis. During the election campaign he made clear that he would take a close look at relations with the Kingdom and would halt U.S. arms supplies for the war in Yemen. In future, he pledged to “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil”.

Translated by Jess Smee.

A version of this article was published by The Brussels Times.

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