|08 December, 2019

G20 Summit: Showing the world Saudi Arabia’s new face

The summit offers the Kingdom the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to modernization, and its willingness to be an honest broker and leader

Skyscrapers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image used for illustrator purpose

Skyscrapers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image used for illustrator purpose

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As the only Gulf state to be a member of the G20, Saudi Arabia is in a unique position. With the 2020 G20 Summit to be held in Riyadh, the country and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman will not only have the opportunity to showcase the Kingdom’s ambitious reform projects, but also to grow Saudi influence in the international community.

As Saudi Arabia embarks upon these ambitious reforms while navigating a difficult situation in the region, from Syria to Iran, the summit offers the Kingdom the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to modernization, and its willingness to be an honest broker and leader. With Saudi Arabia also in the midst of a leadership transition, the summit will represent the crown prince’s true introduction to the world stage.

The G20 itself represents a structure which includes the world’s nineteen largest national economies and the EU. Originally designed as a forum to coordinate and promote international financial stability on the basis of free market ideals, the G20 has radically evolved over the decades. Indeed, it has come to resemble an alternative to the UN and other supranational organizations, through which the world’s most powerful and influential states can engage in collective action so as to solve global problems. Saudi Arabia is thus making its entry into the mainstream of the G20 at a time when this critical international forum is shifting away from mere economic considerations to more overarching ones pertaining to the global balance of power and the stability of the international system.

Saudi Arabia’s role in the G20 is critical for the Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the Islamic world. With the Kingdom being not only the sole Gulf region member but also one of the most important energy leaders, it holds immense influence on global energy policy as well as the foreign policies of the Gulf. With the Kingdom having been a staunch ally of the West in their regional military interventions, Saudi Arabia’s membership in the G20 reflects its importance in relation to energy, geopolitics, and even to the representation of the Islamic world in this most important of global forums. With the crown prince also showing a willingness to reform Saudi Arabia’s domestic economic structures, a new day is emerging as Riyadh prepares to host the summit.

That said, it is important to note that G20 members have often viewed the Kingdom with skepticism, because of its dependence on fossil fuel exports, and relatively low levels of domestic diversification. Given that a neoliberal agenda has thoroughly permeated the G20, Saudi Arabia’s position in the organization has hitherto been somewhat marred by virtue of its lack of congruence with the economic policies of its fellow members. In this respect, its inclusion has sometimes been perceived as resulting from its geopolitical importance rather than its actual economic merit. The true motives underlying Saudi membership are likely to change over the years as Mohammed makes it clear that a new generation of leadership has taken the reins in Riyadh, and as Saudi Arabia makes fundamental changes to its economy and society.

Most importantly for Saudi Arabia’s future, the Riyadh summit will allow the crown prince and the Kingdom to showcase the Vision 2030 project, which promises to so dramatically alter the nation’s future, and bring its economy into line with those of the developed Western world.

With so many critiques of Saudi Arabia having historically focused on its undiversified economic structure, this cohesive plan to transform the Saudi economy into a knowledge-based one will allow the Kingdom to enter the mainstream of the developed world. With the opportunities offered by Vision 2030 not only benefiting the Saudi population but also the global community, the coming summit will let the Kingdom show the world its ambition, and the new face of its vibrant leadership.

From this, Saudi Arabia also has the opportunity to steer policy regarding Iran and Syria. Riyadh is a strong regional power with the potential to develop even greater status should it make necessary economic reforms and investments. Saudi influence will continue to grow, within the G20 and bilateral structures, because of its historic reliability in supporting Western interventions for stability in the region. From this, the summit will provide an opportunity for the leadership to renew this long-term commitment, and offer other leaders in the G20 Saudi support for ending the crisis currently brewing in Iran, and the long-running Syrian civil war, and its associated refugee crisis.

Given the ambition the crown prince has shown in relation to remaking Saudi Arabia’s domestic economy, the coming G20 Summit in Riyadh also offers him the opportunity take on a larger leadership role in terms of coordinating with Western powers to manage the turbulence of the Gulf region. With the crises in Syria and Iran representing nothing more than microcosms of the broader instability of the area, the summit will offer him the opportunity to demonstrate his command of foreign policy, and his willingness to commit Saudi assets to necessary missions in the region.

This is likely to increase Saudi soft power in a period when Western governments are seeking reliable allies. Given that the Kingdom is in the midst of a power transition, this is a critical opportunity for the future Saudi leader.

While leadership in relation to issues pertaining to the Gulf region and the Islamic world represent some of Saudi Arabia’s natural prerogatives, the Kingdom will also be able to show the world that its modernization programs are well underway. Moreover, and with the transition of power to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman still ongoing, it will represent an immense opportunity for the him to present his vision of Saudi Arabia’s future. Vision 2030 will not only transform the Saudi economy but also the manner by which ordinary Saudi Arabians relate to their government, and the world. Inspired by the neoliberalism which predominates within the G20, its denouement will also provide Mohammed with the ability to demonstrate his commitment to G20 values.

The summit will provide the world community with the portrait of a modern nation, transcending its role as a mere oil exporter. Instead, this will show that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of becoming a modern market economy in which competition is the norm, and with whom Western powers will feel safe doing business.

This article was published in The Diplomat Magazine, titled “SAUDI ARABIA TO HOST G20 SUMMIT IN 2020.”

Dr. Hesham Alammar is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Supervisor of the American Studies Center at Prince Saud al-Faisal Institute for Diplomatic Studies. Email: [email protected]

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