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A tale of two G20s

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit this week. (Reuters)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit this week. (Reuters)
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12 Sep 2023 01:09:04 GMT9
12 Sep 2023 01:09:04 GMT9

If the past five years have proved anything, it is how much can change in just five years.

I was at the G20 summit in Argentina in November 2018 as part of the media delegation traveling with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I heard first-hand the speculation coming from my Western colleagues.

Since then, I have seen how Saudi Arabia has stood strong despite the smear campaign against its leadership. And when I describe it as a smear campaign, I do mean it that way. For five years, it has been “fair game” for sometimes even the most reputable of Western media outlets to take off the gloves and make ridiculous assumptions and accusations.

I have written here before, and will do so again, that Saudi Arabia is not above criticism and that the leadership at the highest levels has apologized and vowed to correct mistakes that have happened in the past. But honestly, just look at the most recent coverage of everything Saudi Arabia tries to do.

In 2021, the Kingdom announced the Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives, which aim to fight the effects of climate change, improve the quality of life and protect the environment for future generations. The Saudi Green Initiative includes notable targets such as planting 10 billion trees, increasing the share of the country’s energy mix provided by renewables to 50 percent, and cutting 278 million tons of carbon emissions by 2030. Still, the country was criticized and accused of “greenwashing.” This is despite the benefits these initiatives will bring to both the Kingdom and the region, not to mention climate change being a global issue. So, Saudi Arabia is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

When the Kingdom decided to invest in sports, well-being and entertainment, using its legitimate and hard-earned money to invest in the best footballers in the world, it was accused of “sportswashing.” This is despite 70 percent of the population being under 30 and 80 percent of the population (citizens and residents) either playing or watching football. Anyone who has visited Saudi Arabia or knows us, knows this is a hardcore footballing nation. Heck, our national team was the only one capable of defeating the eventual champions Argentina in the last FIFA World Cup.

Saudi Arabia has even been accused of “chefwashing,” as many high-profile chefs have opened or are set to open restaurants in the country. Are our citizens, residents and visitors not allowed to enjoy good food?

Politically, Saudi Arabia is an easy target for point-scoring. A case in point were comments made by current US President Joe Biden, who — in an uncharacteristic manner for such a veteran politician — vowed to make the Kingdom a “pariah” during his presidential election campaign. Shortly after his election, his office also hinted that he would not deal with the crown prince directly and that his “counterpart” would be King Salman.

With Saudi Arabia, you win much more with an open palm than with a closed fist.

Faisal J. Abbas, Editor-in-Chief

Did the Kingdom react in anger? Not at all. Wise, calculated steps, taken on a path serving Saudi interests, as well as a determined vision to become a force for good, made our leadership a real-life manifestation of the famous Arab saying, “He who is confident walks like a king.”

The result? Well, Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing economy in the G20 this year. As per a recent poll by Ipsos, this is the second-happiest country on the planet. Women’s participation in the workforce has jumped to 36 percent. And we have global football stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema playing here, while the television rights for our football league are in demand worldwide.

Politically, one can hardly call Saudi Arabia a pariah. Biden visited last summer, prompting his famous fist bump with the crown prince, while French President Emmanuel Macron visited Jeddah in 2021 and rolled out the Elysee Palace’s red carpet in June. Even the UK has extended an open invitation, with one government official reported as saying “we need them more than they need us.” That British statement could not be more true.

As it stands, Saudi Arabia is involved in mediating between Ukraine and Russia, stabilizing the oil market, the fight against extremism and negotiations in Sudan, while its new giga-projects mean thousands of jobs and contracts for worldwide businesses. It is definitely not a pariah.

The cherry on top was the warm embrace given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India during the most recent G20 summit, where the international media had a completely different perspective. President Biden also came with a handshake this time, perhaps realizing that, with Saudi Arabia, you win much more with an open palm than with a closed fist.

What about the speculation that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor defies China’s Belt and Road Initiative? Well, to the Americans that might very well be the case, but for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East it is absolutely in our interest.

As it stands, more than 8 million Indians live in the Gulf and India imports some 500,000 barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia. The amount of trade between the two countries is huge. Meanwhile, China remains the biggest importer of the Kingdom’s oil and it has helped politically by spearheading the recent Saudi-Iran deal. So, while Saudi Arabia absolutely wants a better, stronger relationship with India, it would not do this to intentionally hurt its biggest oil importer.

But if anything can be learned from recent policies, it is to benefit from everyone, while hurting no one — unless you have to.

  • Faisal J. Abbas is the editor-in-chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas
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