Saudi Arabia is hosting this weekend's G20 summit of the rich and powerful nations. The oil-wealthy kingdom is accused of major human rights violations, an issue likely to be overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saudi King Salman, 84 years old and in frail health, is set to preside over this weekend's virtual G20 summit from Riyadh. The global COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the G20 is facing an unprecedented global economic crisis.
The Saudi G20 presidency has calculated that the world's most important industrial and emerging economies, including the European Union, plan to invest some $11 trillion (€9.2 trillion) to protect the global economy from the impact of the pandemic. In addition, $21 billion has been set aside for vaccines, medicine and treatment, and earlier this year the World Bank pledged $14 billion to help the world's poorest countries handle their debt commitments.
At this weekend's summit, 19 heads of state and government and representatives of the EU will discuss whether these enormous sums will be enough, or whether more is necessary. The debate is likely to be heated, considering the states' contradictory interests. The United States, still headed by President Donald Trump, is no fan of international institutions, while the EU is backing global cooperation when it comes to a coronavirus response, for example in matters of vaccine distribution.
Many of the world's poorer states, which don't have a seat at the G20 table, aren't expecting too much from the summit. Yves Ekoue Amaizo, a political expert from the western African nation of Togo who now lives in Vienna, doubts that any debts will be waived — at most, he said, there may be some talk of debt relief, but only for interest rates.
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"They have no interest to get rid of anybody who owes them something. It will be a major discussion," he said, predicting that China, the US, Russia and the EU would argue about how to secure easier and cheaper access to African resources and productive capacity with loans and investments. He said there would be pressure, possibly an economic war. "And you know in Africa there is not much, so it will be the raw material."
Some lawmakers in the US and the EU have expressed their doubts about this summit being hosted by an absolute monarchy such as Saudi Arabia. The European Parliament has called on the heads of the European Commission and European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, not to take part in person, and instead send representatives to the virtual talks.
"It would be better not to send a high-level delegation but one that can deliver a strong message to the Saudi authorities," Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella told DW.
However, the European Commission has said this summit isn't about the situation in Saudi Arabia, but about global matters such as the economic crisis and climate change. "We do not fix the agenda of the G20," said Commission spokesman Eric Mamer. "These are events which follow a very, very strict agenda and protocol order when it comes to speaking and of course these are the conditions under which the Commission will be participating in the G20."
There is unlikely to be much public criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record during the summit. And yet, there is plenty to discuss in that area. Just one example: The 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul remains unresolved, even though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been accused of having given the order.
Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch who has been observing the situation in the Saudi kingdom for years, told DW the disappearance of opponents is only the tip of the iceberg.
"Saudi Arabia has a dire human rights situation," she said. "This is a state that continues a war with Yemen, its neighbor. It is continuing to repress human rights defenders and critics in its own country, jailing dozens of dissidents and anyone who has remotely shown some form of criticism. And it continues to discriminate against women through its male guardianship system, in which it relegates women to second-class citizens in their own country."
During its yearlong G20 presidency, the crown prince and other members of the Saudi royal family have tried to lend the kingdom a new image, one that is more accessible and open to reform. And in recent years, they have made some effort to modernize an extremely conservative system, in which men make most decisions for women. New laws allowing women to drive and to apply for a passport without authorization from a male guardian drew much attention, but Begum pointed out the hypocrisy.
"The crown prince is seeking to take the credit for the very reforms that these women have demanded while jailing the women who have actually caused these reforms, and that is ridiculous," she said. "If they want to be seen as reformers for women's rights, they cannot be jailing the very women who demanded these reforms as well."
Saudi Arabia, which looks abroad to buy arms from US and European manufacturers, is also accused of promoting conflict in the region. "Muslim-majority countries in Africa are sending their people to fight in Yemen for the Saudis," explained Ekoue Amaizo, pointing out their motivation for doing so. "The amount of money and investment they are getting back in their country is so high, and the silence of Saudis and many other countries who support them on the corruption issue is so important."
EU diplomats have warned against high expectations from the summit. For them, the G20 is not a community of values but a business club, a place where democratic states must find a way to talk with more autocratic regimes such as Russia, China or Saudi Arabia, with all their different interests.
This article has been translated from German.