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The G20's Riyadh Summit: Grand Ambitions Based in Virtual Reality

Maria Marchyshyn, G20 Research Group

The G20's 2020 Riyadh Summit, organized by host Saudi Arabia, took place on November 21-22, 2020, in a virtual format, similar to many events in 2020 as result of the unravelling global pandemic. The criticism and disappointment that quickly followed the release of the Leaders' Declaration have, however, not been in line with the reality that faced the summit and the G20 leaders. Because the current challenges of the global pandemic, recession and the possible starvation of millions of people, combined with the existential threat of climate change, are so big in scale and number, the aspirations and expectations of the summit were heightened, with observers hoping for a repeat of the 2009 G20 success in dealing with the global financial crisis. This was unrealistic given all the factors that stood in the way of Riyadh's success.

The Riyadh Summit faced several challenges before it even began. First, the virtual format does not allow for engaging in meaningful dialogue, building personal relationships and possibly mending strained ones. The more informal dialogue that takes place during and between sessions is essential for reaching consensus or building coalitions for initiatives. The G20 leaders had only two sessions, with two pre-taped side events to which only some leaders contributed. Phone calls that took place before the summit were not significant enough to make any big breakthroughs on issues.

Second, the pandemic has changed the current frame of mind of the G20 leaders, putting the lives and livelihoods of their citizens first and placing their main and real focus on domestic management of COVID-19 and the pandemic.

Third, the void left from the withdrawal of the U.S. leadership left the other leaders somewhat uncertain of their place in this new formation. The European Union, backed by the current German presidency, tried to show leadership in its final press conference. However, in reality no leader truly stepped up to lead any new initiatives.

Fourth, at Riyadh there was much more variation in the perspectives of the leaders than back in 2009. In 2020 there are serious underlying tensions among the G20 members, with the most important being between the two largest global players — the United States and China. These disagreements certainly played a part in diminishing any political will to resolve any pending global issues.

Fifth, the environment in which the G20 leaders met was very different from the one in 2009 or even from 2016. Nationalist, protectionist sentiments have grown rapidly around the world, including within the G20 members. These populist movements have risen as a result of widening inequalities exacerbated by globalization, and have ushered in new leaders in many G20 countries, such as Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, who is currently negotiating Brexit, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The G20 leaders would be wise to recognize this shift and begin to reform the current institutions of global governance to make them more responsive to this new world order.

Given all these challenges facing the G20 leaders, meeting by video and reciting their speeches, it is not a surprise that no big commitments or initiatives were created or large sums of money were raised. In reality, the G20 Riyadh Summit was never slated to be a grand success, but the mere act that the G20 leaders got together and showed unity during this time nonetheless sent an important signal to the world.

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Maria MarchyshynMaria Marchyshyn is the lead researcher on trade with the G20 and G7 Research Groups, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. She focuses on macroeconomic issues, trade and finance, and the European Union. Maria is an adviser to and former vice president of finance of the Organization of Women in International Trade. She is also involved with the UN Association of Canada. She has worked in the financial industry and as a researcher at the European Parliament Committee on International Trade.

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