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Saudi Leadership Must Focus on Innovation for the Future

16 September 2020
A glorious year beckoned for Saudi Arabia, in leading the G20 and hosting the G20 Leaders' Summit in Riyadh in November. Instead, empowering its people and capitalizing on its youth should become the focus for an embattled leadership.
Neil Quilliam

Dr Neil Quilliam

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 nations in the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 23, 2020. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images.
Meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 nations in the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 23, 2020. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

The G20 summit in November was to be a moment when the world focused its attention on Saudi Arabia. As the leaders of the world's 20 largest economies came together for the first time in an Arab capital and presided over the world’s greatest challenges and opportunities, King Salman would have taken centre stage with his son and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman not far behind in the spotlight.

However this will now be a virtual summit, and that is probably a blessing in disguise for the kingdom and its leadership which has not enjoyed a good year. It shares responsibility for crashing the price of oil, which, in conjunction with COVID-19, has brought the global economy to its knees. And it continues to be mired in the Yemen conflict, whereas its ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has, by and large, managed to extract itself while also seeking to rescue its reputation by signing a ‘peace deal’ with Israel.

More recently, it has been forced to push back plans to host the next instalment of ‘Davos in Desert’ until 2021 and the crown prince’s flagship charity Misk is currently under review. The Public Investment Fund (PIF) made a wholly unsuccessful bid to secure a major stake in Newcastle United Football Club which brought an unfavourable ruling at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a heap of damaging media attention.

Squandered opportunity

Nothing washes away the stain of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder or the continuing imprisonment of women and men charged with being traitors. But in many ways, leading the G20 offered the Saudi leadership, especially Mohammed bin Salman, a chance to press reset and atone for some of the excesses of his more controversial policies, such as the war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar. But he appears to have squandered the opportunity so far and there are no signs that is about to change.

Hosting the summit in Riyadh would have given Mohammed bin Salman an opportunity to try and recapture the heady days of 2018, when many of the world's leaders and even the media still viewed him as a force for good. He would have had a captive audience and, instead of staying away from Western capitals which he has chosen to do recently, he could have been feted by world leaders on his home turf. Moreover, the presidency agenda — empowering people, safeguarding the planet, and shaping new frontiers — would have lent itself to meaningful engagement on key policy issues.

Although many analysts and commentators quite rightly argue that Riyadh’s focus on empowerment and safeguarding the planet is widely hypocritical given the kingdom has lurched further towards quashing any signs of opposition and remains highly dependent upon hydrocarbons, at least the ambitious goals of Vision 2030 ought to align with the G20 agenda. The goals of Vision 2030 remain aspirational and are far from ever being met, but there is synchronicity between the two agendas. In fact, the overview of Saudi Arabia’s G20 Presidency documentation states ‘the G20 agenda has a strong echo in the daily lives of the people in the Kingdom’.

Saudi Arabia really needs to empower its people and capitalize upon its youth dividend but that requires, as so many have argued persuasively, long-term investment in education, training, and skills acquisition, and will not be achieved overnight. It needs strategic thinking, capacity-building, commitment, scope for course correction, and patience. There are no quick wins, no shortcuts.

Safeguarding the planet is common to one and all but breaking a dependency upon hydrocarbons, diversifying its economy, and mitigating against the growing impact of climate change are all pressing issues Saudi Arabia needs to address. A failure to achieve these goals in a time-sensitive fashion poses a threat to the well-being of the kingdom and, in order to do so, it must empower its people and use technology wisely to advance the process. Saudi Arabia should be at the front of the pack, but is being surpassed by its neighbours and is in danger of being left way behind.

With its wealth and youthful population, the kingdom can be at the cutting edge of shaping new frontiers. It can deploy its substantive funds to support its own innovators and — to borrow the jargon — create an ecosystem that not only offers Saudis an environment fostering creativity, but also one that draws talent into the kingdom.

This does not mean investing in ‘white elephant’ projects that fail to spark the imagination of Saudis, or following the crowd to buy football clubs without rhyme or reason. It means gearing up to address everyday issues that preoccupy minds of Saudis, such as employment, housing, healthcare, and the well-being of family members. It is notable how the excitement of ‘bread and circus’ issues has abated and the focus moved once again towards family, faith and finance.

The Saudi presidency of the G20 is in danger of passing by with a whimper and the November summit may now be unremarkable. This does not mean the hard work of the continuously active engagement groups will go unnoticed or to waste, but it does mean the photo-opportunity will be passed up and the joint statement garner less interest than usual.

While it may feel like a lost opportunity for the kingdom and, in particular, Mohammed bin Salman, they should both breathe a sigh of relief. In many ways, they will be let off the hook by avoiding the direct scrutiny of the world’s media and human rights organizations. However, the crown prince could still seize the initiative given the spotlight will be on him, albeit from afar, and take bold steps towards resolving the thorny issues that have come to mar his pathway to power


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