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King Salman's Significant Start to the Riyadh Summit

John Kirton, G20 Research Group
November 21, 2020

In his opening remarks to the G20's Riyadh Summit on November 21, 2020, host King Salman of Saudi Arabia got off to a promising start to deliver a significant short-term success on health, the economy and development, but a disappointing failure on trade, digitalization, gender equality, human rights, the environment and, above all, climate change.

The first issue noted was the COVID-19 pandemic, coming at the start of his second paragraph, repeated in the third and dealt with exclusively in the ninth paragraph, which boldly proclaimed the proper principles and strongly binding promises: "We must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all peoples. At the same time, we must prepare better for any future pandemics." In doing so, he supported the scientifically sound principle set by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, that the world must first vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some privileged rich ones. Moreover, King Salman's second promise showed the G20 to be not only a rapid crisis response forum, but also a prescient proactive one. Here again he implicitly supported the WHO, where the process of reform and strengthening is already robustly underway, although he did not refer to the organization directly.

These principles and promise are the centrepiece standard by which the success of the Riyadh Summit will be judged, both at its end and in the year after, when members comply with their commitments and the world sees how many lives they have thus saved and enhanced. Among all issues noted, health came first in the opening remarks, appearing in five of the 18 paragraphs, or 28% of them. Riyadh will thus be the G20's first regular summit that is a heath summit first and most, in a world where no other summit has arisen beyond the G20 itself. It remains to be seen if it will address and act on the many other physical, mental and emotional health harms the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and the other key health issues, such as antimicrobial resistance, primary health care and universal health coverage that G20 summits have tackled in the past.

In second place in King Salman's remarks came the economy. It flowed naturally as a cause of the pandemic: "an unprecedented shock that affected the entire world within a short period of time, causing global economic and social losses." The economy appeared in four paragraphs, or 22%.

In third place came society, centred on the harm done by the pandemic to people's jobs and sources of income. Society appeared in three paragraphs, with its components of women, youth, education, training, entrepreneurship, financial inclusion and digitizalation receiving one world each.

Development appeared only twice, for a surprisingly small 11% given the damage that COVID-19 has done to them and thus to all in the world.

Trade appeared twice. Its only dedicated text focused solely and narrowly on multilateral trade and the World Trade Organization.

Human rights was entirely absent, despite the strong affirmations in leaders' communiqués from G20 summits over the past several years.

The natural environment and climate appeared in two paragraphs, each fully dedicated to them. Yet the emphasis was on the "sustainable" economy, the "circular carbon economy" and cleaner energy systems. Once again the environment got the qualifying adjective and the economy the central noun. Moreover, there was no recognition of the factual existence of "climate change," but merely one, elusive, ambiguous reference to undefined "climate goals."

These results were propelled by King Salman's repeated references to shock-activated vulnerability through the use of these very words from the start and with the recurrent references to the current "crisis" toward the end. There was only one reference to an international institution – the WTO in need of reform. Entirely absent was the existence of and need for the WHO.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G20 Research Group, G7 Research Group and Global Health Diplomacy Program and co-director of the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Polic at the University of Toronto. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Routledge 2018), China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor with Madeline Koch of several publications on the G20, the G7 and global health governance, including G20 Saudi Arabia: The 2020 Riyadh Summit (available soon from the Global Governance Project!) and G7 France: The 2019 Biarritz Summit, and, with the support of the World Health Organization, Health: A Political Choice — Act Now, Together, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project.