When Saudi Arabia announced last year it would become the first Arab nation to assume the presidency of the G20, Riyadh touted it as a reflection of the kingdom’s “role and influence on the global stage”.
With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reeling from the diplomatic crisis triggered by the grisly murder of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, the G20 presidency was a chance to showcase the young royal’s radical plans to revamp the kingdom and to rehabilitate his image.
But the authorities were also aware that its hosting of this weekend’s summit would bring scrutiny on the heir apparent’s leadership, human rights record and an archaic judicial system. Since it took over the G20 presidency late last year, there have been a string of changes which have been welcomed even as activists say deeper reforms are needed.
“For Saudi authorities the G20 Summit is critical: it is a moment for them to promote their reform agenda to the world, and show their country is open for business. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s real reformers are behind bars,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and north Africa.
The G20 presidency “helped” create impetus for human rights reform, a senior Saudi official said, stressing that they were already part of Prince Mohammed’s plans to overhaul the kingdom. “No question, hosting the G20 has enabled us to have an anchor to push things through,” he said.
This year, Riyadh has abolished the death sentence for minors or people convicted while minors and banned public floggings. Saudi courts have also issued landmark rulings asserting women’s rights to live independently and marry without the approval of their male guardians.
In recent weeks, the government said it would end its kafala system, which has prevented foreign workers from switching jobs or leaving the kingdom without their employers’ permission. Rights groups have criticised this system as being akin to indentured labour.
“Saudi Arabia’s human rights reforms are making history,” Awwad al-Awwad, president of the state’s Human Rights Commission said on Twitter last month. “Continuously growing and evolving at a pace previously unheard of.”
But activists have used the summit — which is being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic — to intensify attention on Prince Mohammed’s autocratic rule and the detention of scores of activists, bloggers, businessmen, academics and journalists.
Waves of crackdowns have continued. Hundreds of activists remain in prison, according to human rights groups. One veteran activist died in custody this year and another writer died shortly after he was released.
And while the decision to end the execution of minors was welcomed, Amnesty International said Saudi authorities put 184 people to death last year, the highest number the group has recorded in a single year in the country.
“No one should believe the hype on Saudi Arabia — everyone needs to understand they’ve been cracking down hard on human rights under the crown prince’s authoritarian rule,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director.
A US-based Saudi activist also questioned the effectiveness of the reforms. “If we see reforms going while existing issues remain untouched, it means they are not effective,” the activist said. “We still hear about people being arrested and dying in prison.”
This month, Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, presented a report to the UK parliament urging leaders to boycott the G20 summit “because of the continued unlawful detention and torture of women’s rights activists”.
Leading international NGOs boycotted meetings with Riyadh in the run-up to the G20, because participating would lend legitimacy to a country “trying to whitewash its dire human rights record”.
The mayors of London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles also boycotted a G20 meeting chaired by the kingdom after pressure from human rights campaigners. And the European parliament voted to downgrade its attendance at the summit and urged the EU to do the same.
Activists have focused on the detention of prominent female activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima Al-Sadah who have been detained for more than two years after campaigning for an end to ban on women’s driving. Underscoring the paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule, he announced that women would be allowed to drive just weeks after the activists’ arrest as part of social reforms that have transformed the lives of many young Saudis.
Relatives of the detainees and human rights groups dismiss allegations that they worked with foreign entities to “undermine the kingdom’s security” and have accused the authorities of torture. The government denies allegations of torture.
People briefed on the government’s plans say more change is afoot. The kingdom is considering ending the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences, they said. The public prosecutor is also reviewing death penalties issued against three men, including the nephew of a prominent Shia cleric.
But, no matter what announcements come out of Riyadh, human rights advocates remain sceptical. “Criminal justice reform is important, but Saudi Arabia also needs to begin the hard work of reforming and professionalising the entire justice system so that all Saudi citizens and residents have confidence that they will receive a fair trial,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.