Saudi Arabia had a foreign-policy triumph this week when it hosted this year’s G20 Summit meeting at the weekend, with Saudi officials being given a global media platform to explain the country’s foreign policy and domestic reform agenda.
There was also a visit by the outgoing US secretary of state and a reported visit by the Israeli prime minister, though this was officially denied by the Saudi authorities.
Though the Kingdom was hoping that the summit would take place in person, the virtual summit over the two-day weekend was still a success. The Saudi media hailed the participation of the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations at the summit meeting as a strong answer to calls by some leftist and Muslim Brotherhood groups for a boycott of the meeting or to use it to put pressure on the host country regarding human-rights issues and the war in Yemen.
One Oxford University academic in the UK with knowledge of the Gulf told Al-Ahram Weekly that the “Saudi government hoped the G20 meeting would be a major event, with world leaders and media visiting and it showcasing the country’s reforms and marking a return to Western acceptability after the murder of [Saudi journalist] Jamal Khashoggi. But the Covid-19 virus stopped such plans.”
Many Saudi commentators mirrored the official stance that the Saudi leadership of the G20 during the Covid-19 pandemic had seen the best-possible culmination in the form of a virtual summit meeting. They downplayed the significance of the courtesy telephone call between Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the summit meeting.
One Saudi commentator said that “it is protocol for the host country leader to call the other participating leaders in the G20 Summit, and it doesn’t mean any change in the Saudi position towards Turkey and Erdogan.”
The Oxford academic agreed, saying that “I think the jury is still out on whether the summit will impact Saudi-Turkish relations. I doubt much will change. There is an informal ban on Turkish products [in Saudi Arabia], and this is underpinned by serious regional competition between them.”
The G20 Summit focused on what the rich countries are doing to help the global economy weather the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Points highlighted at the summit meeting were vows to finance Covid-19 vaccine distribution to poorer countries and to extend the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) launched by the group in April.
Saudi Arabia is teaming up with other rich countries to push for the DSSI to benefit more countries, with the number of low-and middle-income countries thus far benefitting from it numbering more than 70. However, the 46 creditor countries involved have only spared the indebted countries some $5 billion, or around a quarter of the promised relief. The DSSI was initially planned to end by the end of this year, but it has now been extended to June 2021.
While this may not be wholly due to the efforts of the host country, officials in Saudi Arabia have been elated that they managed to hold the meeting despite all the odds. At the end of the summit meeting on Sunday, Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman gave a closing speech in which he said the meeting had been the high point of his country’s leadership of the G20 group this year.
Not only was it an opportunity for the Kingdom to reclaim its global standing, but it was also a way to tell the world how the country was changing. Saudi King Salman said in his speech at the summit meeting that there was a need to accelerate the change to green energy to combat climate change, and he also announced an initiative to reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a proposal to work on a global convention on facing up to pandemics.
Neom, a futuristic city project in the northwest of Saudi Arabia designed to be run on clean energy and top-notch technology, was a centrepiece of the Saudi G20 Summit. The half-trillion-dollar project has been affected by the pandemic and low oil prices, and the Saudis are looking for foreign investments in it.
During the summit weekend, Neom was the venue for a meeting between outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Saudi crown-prince.
The Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had flown secretly to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to join Pompeo and Bin Salman. But Saudi officials denied the reports and said the meetings only involved Saudi and American officials.
In the days before the summit, foreign media outlets interviewed Saudi officials who talked about the Kingdom’s foreign policy and its anticipation of a new Democratic Party administration in Washington.
The BBC interviewed Saudi minister Adel Al-Jubeir, who denied human-rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and stressed that through the “presidency of the G20 [Saudi Arabia] is strongly committed to keeping up the momentum towards the empowerment of women and girls around the world.”
The American network CNBC interviewed Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud, who expressed his country’s willingness to work with the future Biden administration in the US, saying that “Saudi Arabia should be part of any potential negotiations between the incoming US administration and Iran on a new nuclear deal.”
Whether Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East will accommodate Saudi concerns, and to what extent, has yet to be seen. As the Oxford academic put it, “things are a bit more complicated now because the Trump presidency is in its final weeks.”
“They [the Saudis] seem to have rolled out Plan B: to get closer to Israel. They hope that this will protect them from the liberal interventionist approach that is likely to dominate in the Biden administration. They could face sanctions and arms embargos over the Yemen war. They will also face pressure to end their boycott of Qatar,” he said.
Some analysts see Saudi Arabia delaying the normalisation of relations with Israel as a wise decision. While consenting to other Gulf countries normalising, and thus appeasing the Trump administration, the country saved the move to placate the Biden administration.
However, it is not yet clear whether even this will be enough to get Washington into line with Saudi regional aspirations, especially towards Iran.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly