Fiddling with a string of prayer beads, Saudi palace adviser Fahad Toonsi leaned forward in his seat to share a rare story from the crown prince’s inner circle.
With the kingdom about to embark on a year in the international spotlight as host of this year’s Group of 20 gatherings, Prince Mohammed bin Salman had rejected event logos designed by some of the world’s top agencies in his pursuit of something typically Saudi. Time was running out, Toonsi told his audience of top Saudi journalists, but the prince wouldn’t budge.
They eventually chose a symbol that riffs on a traditional form of weaving by a 28-year-old local designer, Mohammed Al-Hawas. Leading the grouping “is something that calls for great pride from us as Saudis,” explained Toonsi, who’s also the head of the kingdom’s G-20 secretariat.
The top-level attention to detail reflects what’s at stake for Saudi Arabia as it welcomes leaders from the world’s biggest economies after a period in which Prince Mohammed’s reformist zeal has often been overshadowed by outrage over a murdered critic, a crackdown on dissent denounced by human rights groups, and the kingdom’s leading role in the grinding five-year war in Yemen.
While many are likely to find irony in Saudi Arabia hosting global meetings focused on climate change and female empowerment — the conservative Islamic kingdom is an oil powerhouse where women were only recently allowed to drive and strict dress rules are being cautiously relaxed — Saudi officials see only opportunities.
Presiding over the club that represents at least 80% of global economic output will provide an opportunity, they hope, to improve that badly tarnished international reputation and advertise efforts to establish the kingdom as a business and tourism destination, key pillars of Prince Mohammed’s push to diversify the economy.
On Saturday, finance ministers and central bankers will descend on Riyadh for the G-20’s first cabinet-level meeting, and events will culminate in a leaders’ summit in November.
“The spotlight’s on the kingdom,” said Saudi media minister Turki Al-Shabanah, on stage beside Toonsi at an event in Riyadh this week. “How can we take advantage of this chance to tell our story and talk about it in a positive way?”
That’s no simple task after two years dominated by stories about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, the detention of activists, and most recently an allegation by Amazon.com boss Jeff Bezos — vehemently denied by Saudi officials — that Prince Mohammed personally hacked his phone.
“There were very serious incidents, which give the impression the country is in complete domestic confusion, and does not respect the courtesy rules of international diplomacy,” said Dorothee Schmid, head of the Turkey and Middle East Program at Ifri, a leading French institute for international relations. “The stakes are high in terms of image and credibility for this G-20.”
Several of those incidents remain unresolved. Women’s rights activist Loujain Al Hathloul, who faces charges that include calling for regime change and communicating with diplomats and foreign journalists, is still on trial while others arrested alongside her are stuck in legal limbo or still in jail. The Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen continues despite efforts to end the war, a rift with neighboring Qatar remains unresolved, and full diplomatic relations with Canada have yet to be reinstated after a spat in 2018.
While there was no indication that attendees were boycotting the G-20, as they did previous events in Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, there will be some notable absences this weekend. As of Wednesday, the U.K. wasn’t sending a high-level delegation, nor was China, Russia or Turkey. The central bank governors of Germany and India, and South Africa’s finance minister, also weren’t expected to attend.
Those who do will get a first hand look at the infrastructure investment the prince’s economic blueprint is fueling in the capital Riyadh, including the red and white concrete barriers that have gridlocked the city as workers push to finish a massive metro project.
Almost 60 hotels are being built in Riyadh alone, according to Lodging Econometrics, a U.S. real-estate consultancy. Eight may be ready by the time G-20 leaders arrive in November. While that would add some 1,000 rooms to the roughly 17,000 that already exist, finding suitable accommodation for all delegations could still be a challenge: Osaka, which hosted last year’s summit, planned for 30,000 attendees.
Saudi Arabia expects around 10,000 visitors for the final summit itself, Toonsi said. As well as G-20 events, the kingdom plans to host more than 50 conferences and forums this year that will attract “no less than 250,000 visitors,” he said.
The surge in construction could give the Saudi economy a boost. Jadwa Investment, a Riyadh-based investment firm, predicts that the G-20 will spur an additional 0.2% growth in the non-oil economy this year, with an increase in business tourism propping up consumption.
But at the event where Toonsi spoke, the focus was consolidating the kingdom’s soft power. As servers with golden trays passed out tiny cups of tea, officials discussed ways to change international perceptions of Saudi Arabia.
“This is our chance to inspire the world with our identity and vision,” said Fatima Al Qarni, a member of the consultative Shura council.
Under Prince Mohammed, the government has loosened social restrictions, sponsoring mixed-gender concerts and ending a practice that required women to seek approval of a male guardian to travel. Many Saudis fervently support the leadership and dismiss criticism as attempts to undermine the transition.
However, it’s the simultaneous political crackdown that’s dominated global headlines since 2017, when Prince Mohammed led a controversial anti-corruption campaign, detaining dozens of the kingdom’s most powerful men in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel, the same venue where the G-20 will be held.
Saudi officials want to turn that narrative around. Toonsi pointed out that Saudi’s G-20 presidency coincides with the kingdom opening for tourism. Officials plan to roll out the red carpet of Saudi hospitality, showing visitors the changes going on in the kingdom, he said.
As the event concluded, organizers passed out pins embossed with the logo, a swirling ribbon patterned like a Bedouin tapestry.
“This is just the beginning,” said Al-Shabanah, the media minister.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)