Saudi Arabia at the Helm of the G20

In a historic first, Saudi Arabia was recently announced as the president of the G20, an international organization comprised of  twenty developed countries. As the presidency of the G20 rotates annually, Saudi Arabia will hold this position for the year 2020. Since the country which  heads the G20 sets the agenda for the year ahead and hosts the annual summit, it is highly concerning that Saudi Arabia, with a notorious human rights track record, will hold this position.

Saudi Arabia, a totalitarian monarchy, is a heavily oppressive country whose human rights violations have been well documented by international organizations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In a 2019 report, international NGO Freedom House gave the country an “Aggregate Freedom Score” of seven out of 100. In comparison, Canada received a 99 out of 100 ranking. Saudi Arabia’s most egregious violations concern the rights of women. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, gender equality was ranked 146th out of 153 countries. One example of the prevalent gender inequality that exists in Saudi Arabia is the fact that all women are required to have a male guardian at all times, usually a father, son, brother, or husband.

Recently, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as “MBS”, has effectively assumed control of the government and has been lauded by some as a “reformer” and “liberaliser.” Despite economic reforms and loosening some oppressive policies on women, however, MBS has recently overseen sweeping arrests of mostly female activists, the bombing of Yemen and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An article by the Brookings Institute’s Robert Kagan used the “myth of the modernizing dictator” to refer to him.

There is an argument to be made that international organizations, to be egalitarian, must allow all participating countries the ability to lead without any value judgment.  Considering the process to select the G20 president, however, raises questions as to how Saudi Arabia obtained this position. G20 countries are divided into five groups and each year a country from a different group hosts. Countries within the year’s group must negotiate amongst themselves to determine who will host. Saudi Arabia’s group is comprised of Australia, Canada and the United States. While the nature of the negotiations between these countries is unclear, the fact that Saudi Arabia emerged as this group’s chosen country to assume the presidency raises many questions.

One probable reason for Western liberal democracies’ indifference-or even support-for the Saudi government is economic opportunity. Saudi Arabia has the world’s second largest oil reserves, which is 60% larger than Canada’s reserves and almost 700% larger than the United States’. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil monopoly Aramco had its initial public offering (where a corporation issues public shares), making it the world’s most valuable publicly- traded corporation. Canada has significant trade relations with Saudi Arabia, which have continued to increase since 2016. In 2018, Canada exported nearly 2 billion dollars of goods (particularly “automobiles, tanks and armoured vehicles”) and imported nearly 4 billion dollars of goods (particularly “crude petroleum”). 

While the recently released Overview of Saudi Arabia’s 2020 G20 Presidency document refers to improving the status of women, it is mostly discussed through vague statements promoting  “empowerment” worldwide. It remains to be seen what will be discussed at the G20 summit in Riyadh this November, but it is important to, at a minimum, recognize that while Saudi Arabia has international legitimacy with organizations such as the G20, it continues to commit horrific human rights violations, particularly against women, religious minorities and LGBTQ2+ people. Further, the Saudi regime employs techniques such as capital punishment and torture, while suppressing democracy and fundamental rights. Organizations such as Amnesty International Canada have been vocal about Saudi Arabia assuming the leadership of the G20. It is important for citizens of prosperous democracies to vigilantly require our governments to stand up for human rights both at home and abroad.