DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – This weekend’s Group of 20 leaders’ summit is more about what it is than what it is.
And it is not expected to result in a unified global response to the worst pandemic in decades. While billions of dollars have been pledged for drugs and vaccines, the G-20 countries have mainly focused on securing their own supplies.
Virtual summit saves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the possibility that some leaders defended him in Riyadh, two years after Western intelligence agencies said he bore ultimate responsibility for the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi agents. any involvement in. But an online meeting also deprives the Saudis of a media show to tout their standing in the world.
Beyond putting the brakes on the Saudis’ plans, the pandemic has offered the G-20 an opportunity to prove how such bodies can facilitate international cooperation in a crisis, but also highlighted their shortcomings.
The G-20, whose member countries account for around 85% of global economic output and three-quarters of international trade, was founded in 1999 to enable finance ministers and central bank governors to discuss the global economy .
In March, when border closures and lockdown orders to slow the spread of the virus affected well over a quarter of the world’s population, Saudi King Salman virtually summoned G-20 leaders.
At the time, the recorded global death toll from the virus had just exceeded 22,000. G-20 leaders pledged to share information and materials for research, exchange epidemiological and clinical data, and strengthen health systems. They also pledged to work together to increase funding for vaccine research.
Rapid research and sharing of scientific information for the development of COVID-19 tests and vaccines has taken place. Work on vaccines, which only started this year, could soon lead to viable candidates.
But it is debatable whether health systems have been strengthened; even in wealthier countries like the United States and Europe, hospitals are overwhelmed and testing and contact tracing programs have struggled.
The Associated Press also found that China, a key member of the G-20, was not fully transparent with the World Health Organization in the early stages of the pandemic, although many other countries did not also did not provide full details of their outbreaks.
The disease has now claimed more than 1.3 million lives, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
In a recent letter to G-20 leaders, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world was facing its biggest test since World War II.
The pandemic must be a wake-up call to all leaders that division is a danger to everyone and prevention saves money and lives, he wrote.
He welcomed the recent G-20 decision to offer the hardest-hit poor countries an extension of debt repayment and, in the most serious cases, possible debt cancellations. But he also urged the group to expand its coverage to include vulnerable middle-income countries.
In addition to providing an opportunity for global cooperation, G-20 summits are also an opportunity for host countries to seize the spotlight. Saudi Arabia’s turn in the rotating presidency for the first time was a huge point of pride for the kingdom, and he touted the role using the G-20 logo as a backdrop for press briefings, young and old.
The fact that he hasn’t been able to organize events in person can work both ways. While the array of virtual G-20 meetings that the Saudis have hosted throughout the year would have otherwise brought hundreds of influential delegates to Riyadh, they would also have courted controversy as they did, even from far.
The mayors of New York and London, for example, refused to attend a G-20 meeting on urban development, citing Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on human rights activists and its war in Yemen . Members of the US Congress have called on the Trump administration to withdraw from the summit, and members of the European Parliament have made similar calls to EU leaders.
It is still unclear whether US President Donald Trump, anxious to challenge his electoral loss, will participate.
As it stands, Prince Mohammed will not have to meet with turkeys Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has apparently bugged the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pressure the murder of Khashoggis, or French President Emmanuel. Macron, whose defense of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked protests from Muslims.
Hosting major events such as the G-20 not only gives the kingdom the image of a powerful, modern country and a global economic power, but also distracts international attention from the reality of the rights violations that are occurring. Just a few miles away, Lina Al-Hathloul, whose sister, Loujain, was jailed along with several other Saudi women’s rights activists, wrote in a Washington Post column.
But David Rundell, a career American diplomat with 15 years of experience in Saudi Arabia, said the kingdom’s message should be that isolation will not produce the desired result and that engagement can.
Saudi Arabia needs encouragement for its economic reforms, but also for its human rights record, Rundell said at an event at Chatham House.
While the online nature of this year’s meeting may undermine it with glitter, many noted that what happens at such summits doesn’t always equal the importance of global affairs anyway.
Former US President Barack Obama mocked the dynamics of past summits in an interview this week with The Atlantic.
You get to Congress and then you get to the G-20, and at every level you expect things to be more polished, more sophisticated, more thoughtful, rigorous, altruistic, and it all stays like high school, he says. .
Associated Press medical editor Maria Cheng in London contributed.
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ayaelb
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