Saudi Arabia and Human Rights Activists Fight Over Kingdom's Image at G20

November 21, 2020 

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

For critics of Saudi Arabia's human rights record, the event looked very different: A golden opportunity to highlight the kingdom's abuses and press world leaders to embarrass its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is not expected to live up to either side's hopes. Instead, the coronavirus has effectively reduced the G-20 summit -- like so many meet-ups this year -- to a giant webinar.

That may not be entirely bad news for Prince Mohammed. Despite fierce campaigning by activists, no state has chosen to boycott the virtual event being held on Saturday and Sunday, making it a significant step in the prince's rehabilitation among world leaders.

"Clearly, it has not gone as planned, but that may have been a blessing" for the Saudis, said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Middle Eastern economies.

Heads of state and other dignitaries who might have balked at appearing in photos in Riyadh have less to lose at an online event, she said, while the summit still advances the kingdom's goal of claiming a place among powerful countries it considers peers.

"A virtual conference plays to Saudi Arabia's strengths and could prevent any embarrassing mishaps," she said.

ImageEuropean Council President Charles Michel, center, at a news briefing in Brussels on Friday, ahead of a G20 online meeting. The coronavirus has reduced the summit to a giant webinar.
European Council President Charles Michel, center, at a news briefing in Brussels on Friday, ahead of a G20 online meeting. The coronavirus has reduced the summit to a giant webinar.Credit...Pool photo by Olivier Hoslet

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.

Also on the agenda and discussed in complementary events are women's empowerment and sustainable energy development.

President Trump is slated to participate, according to senior administration officials, though the agenda could underline the United States' failure to control the spread of the virus and Mr. Trump's preference for traditional energy sources 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 among five groups of countries, with one country in each group holding the position at a time. Saudi Arabia, in a group with Canada, Australia and the United States, was named president for the first time last December.

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

Since then, Prince Mohammed has lifted some restrictions on women, promoted entertainment and tourism, and advanced plans to diversify the economy away from oil. He has also led the Saudi military into Yemen's civil war, which has become a grave humanitarian crisis, and locked up clerics, women's rights activists and even members of the royal family.


The summit is an opportunity to showcase vast social and economic reforms being championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.Credit...Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

In 2018, Saudi agents entrapped, killed and dismembered the dissident Saudi 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 that and other human rights violations.

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

Last month, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz used his keynote address at a related event organized by Saudi Arabia to call for a moment of silence for Mr. Khashoggi and a group of women who were detained after opposing and defying the kingdom's former ban on women driving. The ban was lifted in 2018, but some of the women remain in detention.

"If this meeting does not come to terms with the violations of these human rights and those in other countries around the world, it cannot hope to achieve inclusive societies for which we all strive," Mr. Stiglitz said in a video of the event, called the Think 20 summit, that was captured by activists but not published on the event's website.

The mayors of Paris, Los Angeles, London and New York have declined invitations to join G-20 events, and a number of rights groups have organized an alternative, virtual summit this weekend to highlight the kingdom's human rights record.

But the critics appear to have had a limited effect on the headline event, the leaders' summit, although some hoped that individual speakers would use their platforms to raise rights issues.


A projection on the Louvre Museum in Paris on Thursday by Amnesty International demanding the release of jailed Saudi activists.Credit...Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

"Some said, 'This is too important, we have to plan a strategy for Covid and deal with big economic issues,'" Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said of responses to his group's lobbying efforts. "There were others who did see it was problematic that Saudi Arabia was getting this reward."

Spokespersons for the State Department and the foreign ministries of France and Germany did not respond to requests for comment on whether they had considered the kingdom's human rights record when deciding to participate in the summit.

"The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a heinous crime and we have repeatedly called for justice to be done," a press officer for the British government wrote, adding that the foreign secretary had raised the issue with the Saudi government during a visit in March.

Mr. Coogle said he had been struck by the Saudi G-20 program's emphasis on women's empowerment while prominent Saudi women activists were "jailed, silenced or in exile."

"That demands attention by the attendees," he said. "It is not something that can be swept under the rug."

Reporting was contributed 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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