The Group of Twenty or G-20 is a group of the world’s top nineteen countries with the largest economies and the European Union. It was conceived as a bloc that would bring together the most important economies in the world to discuss international economic policies and financial stability. The member countries account for around 80% of global economic output, 75% of international trade, and 66% of the total population. The G20 is not a permanent institution and does not have a headquarters, office, or staff. Its leadership rotates on an annual basis among its members, and its decisions are made by consensus. Its agenda is wholly dependent on the political will of the individual states. This year, with Saudi Arabia holding the presidency post, the summit was held in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s agenda for this summit was to increase its standing among the developed nations of the West, while the West was more concerned with maintaining their relationship with the world’s largest oil exporter. Therefore, even though human rights activists and other civil society groups across countries voiced their concerns against the Middle Eastern nation’s illiberal and authoritarian policies, their concerns fell on deaf ears. The western countries of the G-20 seem to be playing a low-stakes game with Saudi Arabia by lending it an air of respectability that is harmful to the future of human rights and peace in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s projected image of development
The G-20 summit this year was seen as a platform for Saudi Arabia to cement its significance at the global level. The country has tried to diversify its economy from oil, and its previously state-held ARAMCO is now the largest publicly traded company in the world. It has focused heavily on tourism as an alternative source of revenue. The Saudi Royal Family has tried to lend the kingdom a new image, one that is more palatable and accessible to the rest of the world. In recent years, they have tried to modernize the conservative social fabric of their system, in which men make most decisions for women. These changes include the rights to allow women to drive and to apply for a passport without prior approval from a male guardian. These reforms drew public lauding, but there is still present inherent hypocrisy in the country’s actions.
Internal despotism continues
The royal family continues to take credit for these reforms on the world stage, but the women that have demanded these rights for years, those that have actually brought about the changes continue to remain in jail. Prominent women’ rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, and Samar Badawi continue to languish in jail while the Saudi royal family puts forth a farcical image of empowerment.
While it tries to put forth a farce of modern values, its role in the 2015 war in Yemen is unforgettable. The civil war is now in its seventh year and has killed over 112,000 men, women, and children. It has set off arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 80% of the Yemeni population is reliant on aid, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many are forced to choose between food and life-saving medicine.
The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, widely believed to be an act by the Saudi regime, set off international condemnation and protests. He was a journalist and a prominent critic of the regime. He was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and still remains as a bloody reminder of the country’s despotic ruler and his policies of intolerance. While the case remains unresolved, Prince Salman has been accused of ordering the murder by both the CIA and the UN.
The Saudi regime believes that Western countries would overlook its transgressions in the human rights field if it presented an image of development. The actions of Western countries do betray their stand about Saudi – while some countries such as Canada have openly condemned the regime, other forms of condemnation and ramifications for Saudi seem missing. The economic and geopolitical significance of the country takes precedence over its treatment of its citizens and neighbours. The approach of most Western countries towards relations with Saudi Arabia stem from a realist, cost-benefit analysis of Saudi’s actions versus its trading and strategic advantages. Saudi itself understands its importance in the arms and oil trade to other countries and therefore does not commit itself to actually bringing in liberal measures, relying on the fact that Western dependency on the country would make them relent to its authoritarian transgressions.
Role of G-20 Summit
It is at this political juncture that the G-20 summit of 2020 was supposed to be located; one where Prince Mohammad Bin Salman hoped Western nations would look past at his egregious record, and one for human rights activists where an embarrassment or a boycott by powerful countries would occur. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International called on leaders to boycott the meetings, and the mayors of New York City and London refused to participate in a G-20 related meeting on urban development, citing the country’s human rights record.
The last-minute online format of the event, however, arrived at an opportune time for the leader of Saudi Arabia, as countries have far less to lose now. The 2020 G20 summit was virtual in nature and focused heavily on the Coronavirus pandemic. The world’s highest death tolls are recorded in seven of the G20 member countries. This summit stressed on the importance of global access to COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, and tests.
What was missing in the meeting was the public criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The country continues to imprison political dissidents, and opponents keep disappearing. It continues to wage a war with its neighbour and represses human rights defenders and internal critics. By ignoring these characteristics of the Middle Eastern monarchy, the Western nations are only adding ammunition to Saudi’s growing international importance. Without criticism and strict action against the country, the other members of G-20 are also projecting their own hypocrisy with regards to human rights and liberal values that they claim to hold dear. It brings to light the realist perception of states as maximisers of their own self-interest since for the developed countries of the West the most important thing is the trading deals with Saudi Arabia.
The G20 primarily remains a business club, where larger countries flex their power and try to come to a consideration of favourable terms to deal with each other. In hoping for a human rights condemnation, activists are unfortunately acting on an unrealistic hope: that economic interests will be suppressed in favour of global power consolidation, vaccine-procurement, and armament treaties. The U.S. and the U.K., prominent G-20 members, are also involved in massive trading deals with Saudi Arabia with regards to oil and arms. They have repeatedly overlooked Saudi’s oppressive regime and its actions, for fear of losing their access to oil and their connection in the Middle East. However, by acquiescing to Saudi’s flimsy developmental narrative and not criticising its massive human rights violations, these countries are only escalating the crises in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia will consider that it has been granted free reign over the Yemen war and its financing to terror groups in different parts of the world. Short-term interest-maximisation should not be the only goal of these states, since it is detrimental not just to Saudi Arabia but also to the larger international community. In realist terms, overlooking Saudi’s current transgressions would only incentivize the regime to continue its oppression, leading to larger political instability – instability that will one day reach the Western nations through terrorism and fundamentalism. To prevent long-term instability and drastic consequences, the countries of the G-20 need to act now to renegotiate their relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Akanksha Mishra is a second-year Political Science and International Relations student from Ashoka University.