Thierry Monasse/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
After the Khashoggi affair, faced with persistent criticism from many human rights NGOs, Saudi Arabia wanted to take advantage of its G20 presidency to show itself in its best light. But the pandemic has transformed the expected showcase into video conferencing without much glamor.
The press room installed in the Crown Plaza hotel in Ryad, the capital, should have been a buzzing hive of hundreds of international reporters.
But on Saturday, they were only a handful of journalists, duly masked and obliged to submit to temperature measurements, to cover two days of virtual meeting of the great economic powers of the planet.
As the summit opened, the few foreign media in attendance pointed their cameras at a large flashing screen where the faces of leaders from around the world appeared in small windows – one rummaging through papers, another calling for technical help. and yet another chatting with an off-camera assistant.
In the press room, with walls adorned with chandeliers, empty workstations illustrated the missed opportunity for Saudi Arabia, the first Arab nation to host the G20, to make the summit a showcase for its modernization.
“It is the will of God,” blurted out, fatalistically, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir.
Once austere, the kingdom intended to praise the reforms undertaken over the past three years: women have been allowed to drive, cinemas have reopened …
“It would have been nice to see thousands of people come to Saudi Arabia, walk the streets, meet Saudi men and women, see the changes that have taken place in the country,” Jubeir said.
A physical summit would also have been an opportunity to enhance the tourism potential of the kingdom: this “white oil” that the petromonarchy wishes to develop to diversify its income.
Despite breathtaking landscapes, Saudi Arabia, which practices a rigorous Islam and where alcohol consumption is strictly prohibited, struggles to attract tourists.
The kingdom hoped to remedy this and the press room, which displays dreamy Saudi landscapes, could be mistaken for a tourism fair.
Servers offer four kinds of coffee for tasting, each from a different region of the kingdom; books praise Saudi culinary delights or little-known sites, such as the ancient city of Al Ula or the mountainous region of Abha.
On Friday, the kingdom hosted a media dinner in the historic town of Diriyah, near Riyadh, renowned for its terracotta architecture, with traditional dancing on the program.
But the shadow of the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi still hung over the event.
During a press conference, Minister of Investment Khalid al-Falih was questioned whether the impact of this crime had caused economic damage to the kingdom.
In a country not used to journalists asking disturbing questions, the moderator wanted to evade the question. But the minister insisted on responding.
“Investors are not journalists, they are looking for countries where they can have confidence in a government that is efficient and makes appropriate economic decisions,” he shrugged.
“The new Saudi Arabia (of Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman), we no longer really believe. The real reformers of this country are now behind bars ”, had bitterly noted before the summit Lina al-Hathloul, sister of one of the feminists arrested in spring 2018 in the kingdom, Loujain Al-Hathloul.
“We must take advantage of this summit where Saudi Arabia will be in the spotlight for a few days to say things publicly,” she told AFP.
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