G20: World leaders will attend, but Riyadh shouldn't rejoice

Global leaders will not boycott the G20 over human rights, but Riyadh should not rejoice
5 min read
20 Nov, 2020
Comment: Despite calls for boycotting the G20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia this year, the world will send representatives. But this is not a favour to Riyadh, explains Courtney Freer
This year's G20 summit will be held virtually [Getty]
Saudi Arabia is set to host the G20 summit virtually on 21-22 November amid calls for boycott due to continued concerns about human rights abuses in the kingdom.

Last month, 
45 members of the US Congress wrote a letter urging the Trump Administration to boycott the G20 unless Saudi authorities address human rights concerns, specifically those related to the ongoing war in Yemen, imprisonment of political activists, and lack of accountability for 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The letter from Congress followed the submission of a resolution by 65 members of European Parliament calling on the EU to downgrade its attendance at the summit by withdrawing the participation of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, again due to human rights concerns.

The resolution, the European Parliament's clearest rebuke of Saudi Arabia to date, was approved by European Parliament and stated that "[
t]his would be an opportunity for the EU to show coherence with its values ​​and to not legitimise the impunity for the crimes committed in Saudi Arabia." Further, the mayors of London, Los Angeles, New York, and Paris chose to boycott the U20 urban summit in advance of the G20 due to human rights concerns.

The Saudi Howeitat tribe has also called on a boycott from the British foreign secretary to protest "ongoing serious human rights violations by the Saudi Arabian government." Members of the tribe claim that they have been displaced to make space for construction of futuristic megacity Neom.

A spokesperson for the British Foreign Office explained that British officials "
continue to raise human rights issues, including reports of evictions, with Saudi authorities," but added that the G20 provides "a critical moment for the UK to help lead the global push for a sustainable recovery from coronavirus." Authorities have used other justifications in the past to explain their continued engagement with Saudi Arabia, despite its worsening human rights record.

Last year, however, most attendees had returned, signalling the business community's willingness to ignore the Saudi human rights records

The fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death led to international outcry against the Saudi regime, also called for world leaders to boycott the event. She posited that "[t]he fact that the G20 summit is hosted by Saudi Arabia is giving a message that people continue their lives as if nothing has happened." Indeed, the year following Khashoggi's murder, many invitees to the annual Future Investment Fund held in Riyadh, better known as "Davos in the Desert," boycotted due to the outrage over the murder, which had taken place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

By last year, however, most attendees had returned, signalling the business community's willingness to ignore the Saudi human rights records, despite the fact that it had not improved in the intervening year, due to the prospect of lucrative investments. 

Further illustrating discontent with the G20's host country, PEN America hosted on Friday an alternative event, the G20 Counter Summit: Reckoning with Opportunities for All in Saudi Arabia. The event aimed to highlight abuses of the Saudi regime at the same time as the G20 summit proceeds from Riyadh. A number of relevant groups have partnered in the summit, including Amnesty International USA, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), ALQST, Freedom Forward, Freedom Initiative, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and Open Society Foundations. 

Read more: Two years later, Saudi Khashoggi verdict makes a mockery of justice. The world must act 

With a Biden administration set to come to power and unlikely to continue to indulge Saudi abuses in the way that the Trump Administration has, the G20 summit may provide an opportunity for the kingdom to walk back its human rights abuses. Interestingly, Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reportedly told the Guardian last week that the women arrested in 2018 involved in the campaign for the right to drive may be released ahead of the summit, since these arrests are seen to have caused more harm than good. 

Shortly after the remarks were published, however, the Saudi embassy in London denied to the BBC that the ambassador had ever implied there was a debate about possible clemency for the women activists before the G20 summit. Even statements about discussions surrounding clemency, then, are severely contested, suggesting how little room for political manoeuvre exists even for Saudi political elites, which does not bode well for the protection of human rights more broadly.

Those states that attend will do so not out of a favour to Saudi Arabia, but as a means of renewing commitment to the G20 at a time of global insecurity

With all parties thus far expected still to attend the summit, major announcements are expected at the G20, particularly as related to debt reduction for poor countries that have suffered particularly due to the Covid-19 pandemic and potential for the G20 coming together to allocate funds toward treatment tools for coronavirus.

With the potential for good press resulting from such announcements, many countries are willing to set aside reservations about being involved with Saudi Arabia. Yet the event, which was once meant to provide a PR boost for the kingdom, has highlighted the extent to which the international community has not forgotten its human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, those states that attend will do so not out of a favour to Saudi Arabia, but as a means of renewing commitment to the G20 at a time of global insecurity.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.