How Saudi Arabia is using G20 talks to hide its terrible record on women's rights

How Saudi Arabia is using G20 talks to hide its terrible record on women's rights
Saudi organisers are accused of stifling debate about women's rights and turning the G20 event into a public relations sham.
6 min read
07 May, 2020
Western delegates say Riyadh has silenced any meaningful debate about women's rights. [Getty]
Saudi Arabia is using its chairmanship of the G20 to nix meaningful talk about women's and human rights at the summit of world leaders it will host in Riyadh in November, angering many western delegates who are taking part in the discussions.

Western envoys to preparatory talks ahead of the annual summit of the Group of 20 major economies told The New Arab that Saudi organisers were "gender-washing", stifling debate about human rights and turning the event into a public relations "sham".

Several members of the eight engagement groups that hatch policy ideas on human rights, women's empowerment and other issues for G20 leaders have pulled out of talks ahead of the 21-22 November leaders' summit in the Saudi capital.

"Saudi Arabia's PR army has worked hard to silence any serious talk about women's rights and human rights at the G20," Sunjeev Bery, director of the anti-autocrat campaign group Freedom Forward, told TNA.

"This is all about the Saudi monarchy parading itself under the global spotlight and dodging questions over its abysmal record on basic freedoms."

Lyric Thompson, a policy director at the International Center for Research on Women and a member of the US delegation to the G20's group for women, the W20, pulled out in April after language on gender was dropped from a formal statement on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saudi Arabia's PR army has worked hard to silence any serious talk about women's rights and human rights at the G20

Announcing her exit in an online statement, Thompson said she wanted to "stand in solidarity with women's rights activists in the country and around the world who are linking arms in the name of equality and justice for all".

The W20 is one of eight so-called 'engagement groups' that hatch ideas for the communique that US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other G20 leaders are due to issue as a policy blueprint at the group's annual summit.

Life for women has improved since Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, became the kingdom's de facto ruler in 2017, with the lifting of a women-only driving ban. Still, women face daily restrictions and several pro-equality campaigners languish in Saudi jails.

Erin Watson-Lynn, an Australian delegate to the W20, described frustration within the group, saying "gender is not even mentioned in any outputs from the G20 this year" and that she may follow Thompson's exit from the forum because of "gender-washing".

Read more: New investigation reveals shocking extent of torture in
Saudi women's prisons

"I've started to worry about the W20, that they've gender-washed the G20 to achieve their other objective: a perception of reform and change in Saudi," Watson-Lynn, also an academic and foreign affairs advisor in Canberra, told TNA.

Another W20 member, Italian delegate Gianna Avellis, said she was sticking with the forum as it was designed to hatch policy ideas for women's empowerment across all G20 economies rather than single out one nation for scrutiny.

Still, a presentation on the "difficulty of the women's situation in Saudi Arabia" at talks in Riyadh in January offered a "one-sided" tale of progress under MBS that ignored the plight of Loujain al-Hathloul and other caged women activists, Avellis told TNA.

Bethany Alhaidari, a women's rights campaigner at Freedom Forward, described Saudi as one of the "world's worst places to be a woman" and blasted the W20's "silence on women's human rights" in the conservative petro-monarchy.

"Peaceful women's rights activists and some of Saudi Arabia's greatest heroes and reformers are sitting and literally dying in prison," Alhaidari told TNA

"To go there for the G20 and engage with this government like everything is normal is ridiculous."

TNA asked Saudi's G20 secretariat and its mission to the UN in New York to respond to criticisms but did not get a reply. It remains unclear whether the summit will be postponed or scaled back due to Covid-19.

Peaceful women's rights activists and some of Saudi Arabia's greatest heroes and reformers are sitting and literally dying in prison

Frustration within the W20 follows a ruckus in another group, the C20 for civil society actors, earlier this year, when Amnesty International, Transparency International and other campaign groups acrimoniously exited the Saudi-led process.

Ann Harrison, a senior advocate with Amnesty, said Saudi hosts were trying to "hide any reference to human rights" in G20 talks by excluding critics and cherry-picking committee heads who were more likely to stick to Riyadh's script.

The C20 was led by the King Khalid Foundation, which is connected to Saudi's ruling royal family, and the group lacked input from any Saudi trade unionists, activists or anyone who did not embrace MBS's Vision 2030 reform agenda, said Harrison.

Those remaining in the C20 were being "used to whitewash Saudi's human rights record", said Harrison, who urged members to raise the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other alleged abuses while in Riyadh.

Read more: Kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured: How the Saudi regime
wanted to silence women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul

Supporters of MBS talk up an ambitious bid to revamp Saudi's oil-dependent economy and embrace global norms on human rights, pointing to recent decisions to end the punishment of flogging and the execution of child offenders.

Critics, however, highlight an ongoing crackdown on dissent, Khashoggi's assassination, executions and jail sentences for other critics and alleged war crimes during a war with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.

John Kirton, a University of Toronto professor and a delegate to the T20 group of researchers, agreed that women's and human rights had been side-lined this year, but noted that Saudi officials had also advanced an ambitious environmental agenda for the summit.

Still, all such discussions were now being cut back due to the 'Covid crowd-out', as leaders grapple with the core G20 issue of economic stewardship amid a pandemic that has infected millions, shuttered cities and roiled markets, Kirton told TNA.

The group of 20 rich and emerging economies is struggling to bridge an estimated $8 billion funding gap to combat the plague and has called for action on producing technology, tools, vaccines and therapies.

The G20 forum of 19 countries and the European Union was created in 1999 but became the lead body for world economic coordination when heads of state and premiers took part in the first leaders' summit during the 2008 financial crisis.

Back then, the group swung into action to mobilise support for cash-strapped governments. This year, talk of global coordination in the face of Covid-19 has gained little traction, with world leaders divided under the isolationist US presidency of Trump.

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl