RIYADH: Saudi King Salman opened the G20 summit on Saturday in a first for an Arab nation, with the virtual forum dominated by efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis and the worst global recession in decades.
G20 leaders, including US President Donald Trump who is refusing to concede a bitter election, popped up in multiple windows across a flickering screen, in a high-stakes webinar held amid the raging pandemic.
The leaders are huddling online for the two-day “gathering” as international efforts intensify for a large-scale rollout of coronavirus vaccines after a breakthrough in trials, and as calls grow for G20 nations to plug a $4.5-billion funding shortfall.
“Although we are optimistic about the progress made in developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics tools for Covid-19, we must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all people,” said King Salman, the summit’s host.
“We have a duty to rise to the challenge together during this summit and give a strong message of hope and reassurance to our people by adopting policies to mitigate this crisis,” he told world leaders in opening remarks.
As the trailblazing event got under way, there were some early quirks, with someone heard telling the king that “the whole world is watching” before the event started, Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently having to call for technical help, and French President Emmanuel Macron chatting to an aide off camera.
With Saudi hopes for a grand coming-out parade dashed due to the pandemic, the event is reduced to brief online sessions of what observers call “digital diplomacy”.
Despite having to abandon much of the usual summit pageantry, Saudi Arabia launched the meeting with an aerial acrobatics display over Riyadh.
And denied the opportunity to take the traditional “family photo”, a montage of G20 leaders was projected onto the ruins of the historical town of Diriyah during a gala event Friday.
Along with Xi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin are among leaders expected to speak at the summit, with climate change among the issues topping the agenda, sources close to the organisers said.
Trump is also taking part but it is unclear whether the US president, who continues to reject his election defeat, will make an address. Many G20 leaders have already congratulated his rival, President-elect Joe Biden.
G20 nations have contributed more than $21bn to combat the pandemic, which has infected 56 million people globally and left 1.3 million dead, and injected $11 trillion to “safeguard” the virus-battered world economy, organisers said.
But the group’s leaders face mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults across developing nations.
Last week, its finance ministers declared a “common framework” for an extended debt restructuring plan for virus-ravaged countries, but campaigners say the measure is insufficient.
The ministers had extended a debt suspension initiative for developing countries until June next year but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pushed for a commitment to extend it until the end of 2021.
International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva has warned that the global economy faces a hard road back from the Covid-19 downturn even as vaccines are now in sight.
G20 nations must help plug the $4.5bn funding gap in the so-called ACT-Accelerator, Norway’s prime minister, South Africa’s president, the heads of the European Union and the World Health Organisation demanded in a joint letter to the group.
The programme promotes an equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to rein in the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has cast a shadow on the gathering, as campaigners and families of jailed activists launch vigorous drives to highlight the issue.
Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih was asked at a news conference if Saudi Arabia needs to try a different approach to overcome negative headlines, including over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment of critics in an ongoing crackdown.
In a country where it is rare for leaders to field this sort of question, the moderator asked the journalist to take the query elsewhere, but Falih insisted on answering.
“Investors are not journalists, investors are looking for countries where they can place their trust in an effective government that has proper economic decision-making,” he said.
Some Western officials have indicated human rights will not be raised at the summit, saying they prefer to use bilateral forums to discuss the issue with Riyadh.
“Instead of signalling its concern for Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, the G20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression,” said Michael Page from Human Rights Watch.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2020