Why the G20 matters now for both Saudi Arabia and the international community

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France's President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes holding a joint media conference with Argentina's Mauricio Macri at Casa Rosada presidential house in Buenos Aires on November 29, 2018. (AFP / Ludovic Marin)
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G20 summit banners are pictured ahead of the leaders' meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 29, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 30 November 2018

Why the G20 matters now for both Saudi Arabia and the international community

  • The world is hoping the US and China will resolve their trade war
  • Saudi Arabia will showcase Vision 2030 on the global stage

DUBAI: The summit of the G20 nations assembling in Buenos Aires comes at a crucial time in world affairs, as well as a critical juncture in the economy of its host nation, Argentina.
For Saudi Arabia too, the meeting comes at an important crossroads – an opportunity to move its economic transformation strategy onto another level in the face of challenges at home and abroad.
While public perception of the G20 is based on the power-play politics on display over the traditional 48 hours of summitry, behind the scenes the gathering is a forum for the resolution of economic and financial issues.
The two days of in-your-face events are preceded by more discreet meetings of business leaders and financial officials — the legendary “sherpas” — from the member countries and their invitees; their discussions are decidedly economic, rather than political; their implicit agenda is to maintain economic stability within the existing financial framework.
Maybe this is why, over the course of the 10-year history of the G20, it has attracted more criticism and opposition from the left wing, and physical opposition from violent extremists, than any other multinational gathering.
The G20 is unashamedly a club of capitalists, even when its most populous member and second biggest economy, China, is still nominally a communist economy. In its decade in the capitalist inner sanctum, China has proven just as orthodox a capitalist as any of the other members, including the standard bearer of free enterprise, the US.
In 2009 at the G20 in Pittsburgh, China joined with the US to bail out the world with an expansionist program after the global financial crisis had led it to the brink, declaring itself a committed member of the club.
How different the atmosphere is in Buenos Aires. The global economic system seems to be on the point of fracture again, but this time there seems little chance of a US-China double act coming to the rescue.
The Costa Salguero Center on the edge of the Rio de la Plata will be the venue for the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping since, earlier this year, the former fired the opening shots in the “trade war” going on between them by declaring his intention to impose $250 billion of tariffs on Chinese imports.
China retaliated with its own tariffs, and there is a danger that the confrontation — which some American officials describe as merely a “skirmish” — will descend into a full-scale battle next year, when the tariffs take effect.
That would have serious consequences for a global economy that is looking increasingly fragile amid concerns that the financial system, too, is laboring under a weight of increased debt and overinflated asset prices.
China recently held out an olive branch, with deputy president Wang Qishan declaring his readiness to enter serious negotiations to avoid a breakdown in the global trade system. The hope is that Trump will hold off formally applying the tariffs in January.
But in Buenos Aires, nobody is expecting too much from the dinner that the two presidents have arranged on Friday night.
By then, the first full day of the summit will have been completed, and President Mauricio Macri of Argentina will be hoping that it has gone off without the major incidents that have been threatened by home-grown and international agitators.
If there was a repeat of the serious football-related violence that broke out in Buenos Aires recently, it would take the shine off his attempts to claim that Argentina had turned a corner in its economic troubles, in the run-up to presidential elections next year.
Macri was elected three years ago in a burst of optimism that his reformist policies would put the Argentine economy on the road to stability after years of boom-and-bust cycles, interspersed corruption scandals, and domestic unrest.
For a while it seemed to be working, and winning the G20 was seen as a mark of approval by the international community for his presidency.
But recently the old Argentine malaise has come back with a vengeance. The peso has lost 50 percent of its value against the dollar this year, Argentine financial markets have been chaotic, and inflation has soared to more than 30 percent per annum. Some Argentinians complain they cannot afford steak.
Macri has stabilized the situation in recent weeks, with the IMF giving its blessing in a series of measures to stabilize the economy and the financial system.
But Argentine citizens are still having to live with an austerity program that threatens their standard of living, and it would not take much for ordinary citizens — the ones who have not taken Macri’s advice to have a long weekend away from Buenos Aires — to join protests that could easily descend into violent confrontation as the G20 leaders meet.
That would be an embarrassment for Macri in front of his fellow leaders, and would also distract from the rest of the very worthy G20 program.
While the media is salivating for a Trump-Xi confrontation on trade, more fireworks on climate change and street protest, the compilers of the G20 program have actually put together a formal agenda that reflects some of the other genuine concerns of the international community.
The theme of the Buenos Aires G20 — as it is the case increasingly with international forums from Davos to Singapore — is sustainability. The world has to live within it means, both in terms of energy, environment, society and finance.
The Argentine G20’s self-declared goals are to focus solutions on the future of work, infrastructure for development, viable food production and consumption, and the inclusion of more women in the global workforce, all against the backdrop of the rapid technological change turning most aspects of the economic process on its head.
That coincides with many of the goals of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which Saudi policymakers — led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — will be at pains to stress is still on track in Buenos Aires. The event gives the opportunity to reassert the project’s credentials on the international stage after a period of uncertainty in crucial global energy markets and changes in the international perception of the Kingdom.
Some aspects of the Vision 2030 program — like the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco originally slated for next year — have been modified in line with changing circumstances, and lower oil prices threaten to alter the fiscal mathematics for the Kingdom’s economic policymakers.
As the biggest economy in the Middle East, a leading oil producer and a long-standing member of the G20, Saudi Arabia will retain its role and its influence in Buenos Aires. The top-level delegation will be working hard behind the scenes, at the bilateral and “retreat” events at the summit center, to argue its case among its global peers.
It all promises to be an instructive lesson in the stagecraft, and statecraft, that goes into hosting a G20 summit, which, after a move to Japan next year, is planned to be held in Saudi Arabia in 2020, its first time in the Middle East.

Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

Updated 48 min 27 sec ago

Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

  • Investigators believe Daesh worked with an obscure preacher
  • In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region

ISLAMABAD: A video that emerged following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka showed seven black-clad, masked figures led by an eighth man, his face visible, pledging allegiance to Daesh.

That man is thought to be Mohammed Zahran Hashim, a little-known radical preacher from Sri Lanka believed by investigators and experts to have masterminded the terror attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 wounded.

On Tuesday, the Daesh terror group claimed responsibility for the bombings, and issued threats of future attacks in both Arabic and Tamil. It also released a video of eight bombers allegedly involved in the strikes. 

However, even with Daesh claiming responsibility for the attacks, many questions remain, including whether the bombers were core fighters from the extremist group or members of local outfits who have pledged allegiance to the organization.

The Sri Lankan government has previously said the attacks were the work of a local Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), along with another group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

Now investigators are scrambling to determine if Daesh merely encouraged these groups to carry out the bombings or if the attackers included core extremists from the terrorist organization. Whatever the links, the Daesh claim suggests that the terror group remains a threat despite the recapture of its territory in Syria and Iraq. It has also heightened concerns about the organization’s growing influence in South Asia, reflected in the FBI, Interpol and other foreign intelligence services joining the investigation.

“Clearly a group as powerful as Daesh won’t go away quickly, and its role in this attack would suggest that it remains perfectly prepared to stage, or help stage, the deadliest attacks imaginable,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Arab News.

Daesh has built networks in a number of Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Philippines and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

“Sri Lanka is the only country in Asia where Daesh has not carried out an attack despite having a network for a considerable amount of time,” he said. Gunaratna said that Daesh had received considerable help from the radical preacher Zahran Hashim, a former member of the NTJ who broke away and created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Daesh branch in Sri Lanka,” he said.

The ‘main player’

With no history of Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka, NTJ  was the main contender for involvement with Daesh.

A government official who declined to be named said that the NTJ had split into three groups in 2016 since many of its followers disapproved of Hashim’s “extremist ideology.”

Hashim’s increasingly militant views came from his growing “international connections and links with Islamic groups in southern India,” the official said. 

The preacher is believed to have received his early schooling in Kattankudy, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. Unconfirmed media reports say he traveled to India to study Islamic theology, but abandoned his studies. Since then, he has reportedly traveled between India and Sri Lanka.

Last year, Hashim came on the radar of intelligence officials after three Buddhist statues were defaced in central Sri Lanka. Interrogation of the young men responsible revealed they were students of Hashim. That investigation also led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast.

Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said Hashim had been turned away by the people and moderate clerics of his native Kattankudy because of his hard-line views. It was then that he turned to YouTube. In the past two years, he gained thousands of followers with impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba media.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017 when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop shows images of the Twin Towers burning after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said that Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was almost certainly the “main player” in the Easter attacks.

Given the unprecedented scale, sophistication and coordination of the bombings, and the fact that foreigners were targeted, it was likely that he had worked with support from international “players,” they said.

“It’s hard to imagine that the attacks were purely domestic in nature,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum. “Most Sri Lankans had not heard about National Thowheed Jamath before,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said.

The group lacked the power to coordinate the attacks, he said. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Specter of violence 

Sri Lanka endured several suicide bombings targeting government officials and installations during the decades-long conflict with ethnic Tamil separatists that ended in 2009. Since then, the country has enjoyed relative calm. After a lull in violence for 10 years, the trauma and anger over Sunday’s suicide bombings have been heightened with revelations that top officials failed to order tighter security arrangements despite the threat of violence. “Sri Lanka was an easy target,” Perera said.

Most importantly, those behind the attack were aware of the deep dysfunction within the Sri Lankan government and exploited it, experts said.

According to an April 11 intelligence report seen by Arab News, police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by the NTJ this month. Reuters also reported that Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches.

A minister said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been told about the warnings and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena. 

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year but was forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is said to be fraught.  “The threat of an attack was known well in advance of Sunday, yet didn’t lead to any efforts to preempt it. That suggests you don’t have people communicating with each other at a high level,” said Kugelman.

“This government dysfunction, driven by tensions between the president and prime minister, could be something that the militants sought to exploit. In effect, they knew they would have a greater chance to pull off this horrific act because a hamstrung government wouldn’t be in a position to prevent it.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Sri Lanka as experts fear that festering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims could explode, raising the specter of the country descending into violence. 

Isolated attacks on Muslim-owned property have already been reported in the past three days.

“The government will need to step up and try to bring together a grieving nation that risks becoming more divided,” Kugelman said. “That won’t be an easy task for an administration that is itself deeply divided.”

Dibbert added: “The government needs to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation in order to fully understand what transpired on Easter. A heavy-handed response targeting ethnic or religious minorities would exacerbate tensions and further destabilize the situation.”