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Saudi Arabia Will Host Virtual G20 Summit This Weekend

NOEL KING, HOST:

Saudi Arabia will host this weekend's G-20 summit. Leaders of the world's biggest economies will meet virtually. That will deprive Saudi leaders of something they really wanted - the chance to show off their country. But it might also help them avoid scrutiny over human rights violations. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This is one of the many promos found online for the G-20 summit. The fast-moving video showcases all Saudi Arabia has to offer - vast deserts, Bedouin traditions and glittering cities. Jon Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the kingdom has spent years preparing hotels and venues for this event.

JON ALTERMAN: This summit was meant to be a sign that they can execute at a level of any of the most advanced countries in the world.

NORTHAM: The G-20 summit also should have been an opportunity for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to bask in the international spotlight as a world leader. But then the pandemic hit.

SAFA AL AHMAD: He cannot get what he wanted. I mean, COVID didn't give him what he wanted. There was divine intervention.

NORTHAM: Safa Al Ahmad is with the London-based Saudi human rights group ALQST. She says a live G-20 could have helped gloss over the kingdom's human rights abuses since the crown prince consolidated power, including jailing dissidents and female activists and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

AL AHMAD: I think he wanted to whitewash the reputation of Saudi Arabia, and he wanted everybody to forget all of those people that were killed or in jail or a hunger strike. He wants the world to forget about them. He definitely wants the world to forget about the disaster that is the Yemen war.

NORTHAM: ALQST and other human rights groups are urging world leaders to boycott the summit. Abdullah Alaoudh is with DAWN, the democracy organization that was founded by Jamal Khashoggi. He says holding a virtual summit may help heads of government skirt growing calls for a boycott.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: It allows many leaders to attend and say it's just a virtual summit that we are using from our own home countries in order to come up with initiative or to support one agenda or another. It made it easier for a lot of people to attend under this pretense.

NORTHAM: Saudi Arabia says there will be serious discussions on the COVID pandemic, the environment and the global economy, and that this summit will be a leader for the future. But Alterman, with the CSIS, says there's no privacy during a session over the Internet. He says the value of a live summit are things that don't transfer very well through a computer screen, such as intimate conversations for the crown prince.

ALTERMAN: The unique value of this kind of event is for people to pull him aside, for him to pull people aside, for him to demonstrate depth and reassurance and a vision and all those things leader to leader. And he doesn't have that opportunity now.

NORTHAM: The Internet also won't allow for the traditional group photo where the other leaders would be gathered around the host of the summit. Somehow, a screenshot on a Zoom call just doesn't have the same zing. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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