COVID deals blow to Saudi Arabia’s G20 summit ambitions

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FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 10, 2019. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – When Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and a leading U.S. ally, took over the G20 presidency in December 2019, hopes in the kingdom were high.

A global summit would help rehabilitate the country on the international stage and turn the world’s attentions to key reforms launched by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open up the kingdom and diversify the economy.

But instead of hoped-for photo ops in opulent palaces, this year’s summit is mostly virtual due to COVID-19, dealing a blow to the prince’s ambitions in a year of global economic downturn.

Though circumstances are far from ideal, “the show must go on, and Saudis have to make the most of the meeting,” said Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Top of the Group of 20 major economies’ agenda is a COVID-19 action plan and measures to stem the pandemic’s impact on global economies, including debt relief for the poorest countries.

Saudi Arabia’s reputation has been battered since 2018, with a global furore over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and the continued detention of women’s rights activists arrested that year.

Foreign direct investment, a linchpin of the crown prince’s economic reform plans, was also lacklustre, with Investment Minister Khalid al Falih saying he expected a slowdown this year due to the pandemic.

This weekend’s Leaders Summit was seen as a chance to showcase the kingdom’s budding tourism and entertainment industries: VIP trips were planned to tourism landmarks, including the $500 billion Neom city of the future mega-project, two foreign diplomats in the region told Reuters.

Discussions about an in-person summit were still being held in late September, and Saudi and foreign leaders confirmed their physical attendance, the diplomats said. The announcement days later that the summit, chaired by King Salman who had surgery in July, would be held virtually took many by surprise.

The king has hailed the kingdom’s G20 presidency as proof of its key role in the global economy. On Thursday, the media minister said that managing the G20 and achieving great results during the pandemic was a source of pride.