Covid-19 puts a damper on Riyadh Summit

Summary: Saudi Arabia was hoping that the G20 gathering would help to burnish a brand that has been severely tarnished.

The G20 Leaders Summit in Riyadh this past week-end was intended to be a moment of triumph for Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It was the first time an Arab state has hosted the gathering and it represented a golden opportunity to present on a global stage the many changes the kingdom has undergone in a very short period of time – changes that frequent visitors to Saudi have remarked upon with a degree of amazement.

They speak about that which was previously forbidden: concerts with pop stars from the West, movie theatres, cultural exhibitions and sporting events such as the WWE “Super ShowDown” at the Mohammed Abdu Arena in Riyadh in February and the just concluded inaugural Aramco Saudis Ladies Golf tournament, all with mixed audiences of men and women. And of course seeing women driving, a right that was granted in June 2018.

Relaxation of the male guardianship system in August of this year has also been hailed as a significant advance for women. At the time the decision was celebrated by Princess Reema bint Bandar al Saud, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Gathering together a group of female employees in the embassy she said: “You have unalienable rights now, the right to your own identity, to move, dream, work.”

Speaking on 19 November the ambassador discussed the importance of gender equity and women’s advancement as a cornerstone of Vision 2030, Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious and audacious programme of economic and social transformation. And she took up a theme often expressed by Saudi authorities. Hers was a country “too often misunderstood, our remarkable progress, reform and change too often overlooked.” She added: “We need to do a better job of correcting an inaccurate and distorted narrative.”

That was what the G20 summit was designed to do, to shift the narrative away from the negative. But Covid-19 intervened and what was to have been a glittering showcase of Saudi innovation, creative drive and women’s empowerment became a flat Zoom reality. The opportunity to press the flesh and wow their guests with trips to sites like the $500 billion Neom AI city of the future now under construction morphed into a dull screen of faces. Still, there was one moment of technical wizardry projecting a group photo of G20 leaders onto the walls of the historic ruins of the city of Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh.

But haunting that image of the G2O leaders was another image cast onto the Louvre in Paris. It was of three women activists detained in Saudi prisons: Loujain al Hathloul, Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi. Their plight and the plight of other women prisoners is the subject of a just released report by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

She cites multiple Saudi and international laws and agreements that have been violated in the arrests and detention of the women. She details credible allegations of torture and she names two individuals very close to the crown prince either directly engaged in or presiding over torture. The torture, the report says, included beatings, electric shock, sexual assault and threats to rape and kill family members.

The two named individuals are Saud al-Qahtani implicated in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother and the former ambassador to Washington Khalid bin Salman. Al-Qahtani escaped prosecution in Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi but remains on the US sanctions list he was put on shortly after the killing (in July his name was placed on a UK sanctions list.)

Khalid bin Salman, while he was ambassador in Washington reportedly encouraged Jamal Khashoggi in the belief that he could return safely to Saudi Arabia. Prince Khalid left the United States shortly after details of the killing began to emerge.  He returned briefly then quit his post. In February, 2019 he was appointed deputy defense minister. (His older brother the crown prince is defense minister.)

The Helena Kennedy report says this about the two men:

“72. ….Al-Qahtani personally tortured Loujain on a number of occasions. Al-Qahtani’s involvement is also attested to by the former female inmate of Dhabhan, who stated that one of the Women’s Rights Activists had told her that Saud Al-Qahtani was present at the unofficial facility for much of the time she was there, directed a number of both individual and group torture sessions, threatened her with rape, and sexually abused her. She also told the former inmate that she had witnessed Saud Al-Qahtani sexually assaulting several other Women’s Rights Activists in their rooms, including Loujain Al-Hathloul and Eman Al-Nafjan.

73. Additionally, the former female inmate of Dhabhan reports that Khalid bin Salman was occasionally present at the unofficial facility, and would sometimes attend interrogations. One of the Women’s Rights Activists told her that he would threaten rape and murder when overseeing interrogations, and would boast about his position and power, saying ‘do you know who I am? I am Prince Khalid bin Salman, I am the ambassador to the US, and I can do anything I like to you’, or words to that effect.”

These are very serious allegations. However, they are not proven and the Saudi authorities have consistently denied the claims. But rather than have an independent investigation the authorities have chosen to take the view that those detained and the manner of their detention are internal issues for the Saudi courts to deal with. It’s a position they took in convicting 8 individuals  and sentencing them to between seven and twenty years for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saud al-Qahtani was not among those charged.

In an interview with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet Adel al-Jubeir, the minister of state for foreign affairs said “our judiciary is independent and we do not allow people to lecture us or tell us what we should or shouldn’t do.” The minister claimed that Loujain al Hathloul was not detained for her women’s rights activism but because she was being investigated as a national security risk. (In 2018, MbS called her a spy and said he would produce evidence “the next day” to prove it but no such evidence has emerged.)

Al-Jubeir also complained, as has Princess Reema, that Saudi Arabia is a victim of unwarranted criticism: “people are not fair,” he told Doucet “they are always looking for the negative part not the positive part.”

Had Donald Trump won the US election, telling that “positive part” would have been less challenging. As it was, with the Saudis attempting to focus the summit on the global battle against Covid-19, Trump made a brief appearance via Zoom to extol his administration’s efforts at combating the pandemic and then left to play a round of golf.

Joe Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state in 2019 and in October said his administration would “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

The Saudis are hoping that was just electioneering talk.  Speaking to Reuters in a virtual interview on the sidelines of the G20 summit Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, said: “I’m confident that a Biden administration would continue to pursue policies that are in the interest of regional stability.”

The foreign minister is likely correct in that assessment but with the current abysmal state of human rights in the kingdom, it is far less likely that the Biden White House will buy into the positive narrative of reform and change Princess Reema has been deployed to sell in Washington.

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