All eyes are on the G20 Riyadh Summit as leaders grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to dominate the agenda and themes of empowering people, safeguarding the planet and shaping new frontiers
The Riyadh Summit on 21–22 November faces immense challenges – far greater in scale, speed, spread and scope than the G20 has ever faced. G20 leaders must confront a deadly health pandemic, as COVID-19 still soars, having already infected more than 50 million and killed well over one million people. They must also confront the intensifying economic, social, ecological and security crises brought by the pandemic, with its prolonged recession, unemployment, social dislocation and personal insecurity, even as intensifying climate change and biodiversity loss reach critical thresholds and kill many more. Amid growing geopolitical competition, populism, provincialism and protectionism, the established international order and its multilateral cooperation are severely strained, as the United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The world thus holds great hope for an effective response from the historic Riyadh Summit. It is the second time the G20 presidency is held in the Middle East, by a Muslim majority country and by a G20 member beyond the component clubs of the G7, BRICS or MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia). It comes only 18 days after a US election, where partisan and policy divides have never been so stark.
A virtual summit
The now virtual Riyadh Summit is scheduled to include all G20 leaders, chaired by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Fellow veterans are Germany’s Angela Merkel, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, India’s Narendra Modi (who hosts the BRICS summit in 2021 and the G20 summit in 2022) and Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Also experienced are Korea’s Moon Jae-in, France’s Emmanuel Macron, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, the United States’ Donald Trump, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte (who hosts the G20 in 2021), Australia’s Scott Morrison and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The newcomers are Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson (who hosts the G7 in 2021), Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, and the European Union’s Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen.
They will address the Saudi host’s themes of “Empowering People, Safeguarding the Planet and Shaping New Frontiers” and the 22 priorities they contain. Yet the agenda will be dominated by the cascading COVID-19 pandemic and its economic, trade and development impacts, as was the G20’s historic Extraordinary Leaders’ Summit on 26 March 2020. The leaders produced 47 commitments then, including 22 on health, nine on macroeconomic policy, seven on trade and three on development. A mere two months later, compliance with them averaged 72%, with health at 63%, macroeconomic policy at 88% and development at 75%.
Compliance by 10 October 2020 with the G20’s priority commitments from its Osaka Summit in 2019, averaged 78%, with health at 78%, macroeconomic policy at 90%, development at 91% and climate change at 89%.
Breadth of scope
Momentum for Riyadh also comes from the unprecedented intensity and breadth of this year’s G20 ministerial meetings. By October, the G20 had held at least 25 ministerial meetings for 12 different portfolios – finance, trade (and investment), energy, health, agriculture, labour, tourism, digitalisation, education, foreign affairs and the environment, and the first ever one on anti-corruption. Several met twice, and finance and health ministers met jointly.
This momentum will be badly needed at Riyadh, as the COVID-19 death toll and devastation are now much greater, with still no end in sight. The prospects are that Riyadh’s leaders will do even better than in March to help the world get through the following months.
On health, they will spur the swift creation of a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine and present principles for its prompt distribution to, and affordable use by, all people.
On the economy, they will support more fiscal stimulus in the US, Europe and elsewhere, seek to coordinate it better among G20 members and with their central banks, and consider how long the private sector and public will tolerate soaring deficits and debts.
On finance, they will consider the risks of, and response to, potential financial crises, erupting not only among their emerging economy members but even their advanced economy ones.
On development, they will extend their Debt Service Suspension Initiative for the poorest countries, and grapple with the need for substantial debt write-offs and a permanent sovereign debt relief mechanism.
On digitalisation, they will promise to produce rules for the fair taxation of the exploding digital economy, and cope with the growing digital divides in jobs, education, gender equality and health that the COVID-19 lockdowns have intensified.
On their greatest challenge of climate change, they will affirm the concept of a circular carbon economy and promise to plant a trillion trees, but struggle to repeat their enduring promise to phase out the fossil fuel subsidies helping heat the planet to unliveable levels.
The G20 leaders at Riyadh will do whatever it takes to get the world through the following months. But to control COVID-19 and its consequences, they could well need, and could certainly use, another emergency summit early in 2021 to cope with the many mounting and erupting challenges it brings.