In November 2020, the G20 summit concluded with Saudi Arabia holding the presidency. It was an extraordinary effort by the host country to tackle previous issues as well as new ones thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the G20 a virtual event.
Despite all the obstacles, the Riyadh G20 summit focused on three main areas: Empowering people, safeguarding the planet and shaping new frontiers.
The Kingdom has quickly moved to capitalize on some key areas, especially under the theme of shaping new frontiers, which addressed utilizing and sharing the benefits of innovation through international collaboration, and harnessing the benefits of digitalization across economies, including advances in artificial intelligence and the development of smart cities. In July 2021, Saudi Arabia inaugurated the Saudi Center of 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) as part of the World Economic Forum of global 4IR centers, with a special focus on logistics, AI application, transportation and smart cities — exemplified in NEOM’s ambitious The Line project.
The wider benefit to Saudi Arabia was the diffusion of international expertise, as the G20 presidency established various engagement groups comprising independent stakeholders and international experts, giving a chance to many Saudi experts to participate and acquire relevant skills. Again, these engagement groups were focused under different tracks: Financial, so-called “Sherpa” tracks and engagement groups.
Out of each, new Saudi initiatives and regulatory oversight emerged, such as the G20 Tech Sprint Initiative to highlight the potential for new technologies to resolve regulatory compliance and supervision issues. Saudi Arabia was not a mere passive G20 participant, learning from others, but also showcased its own accomplishments and know-how. According to the World Competitiveness Yearbook, the Kingdom is ranked second globally in the field of corporate cybersecurity. It also jumped nine places to become 12th among the G20 countries in the e-government development index, reflecting the rapid achievements of the Vision 2030 program. And according to the WCY, Saudi Arabia ranked seventh globally in financing technical developments, something that was achieved through a comprehensive and proactive regulatory framework by both the Saudi Central Bank and Capital Market Authority.
As a sign of confidence in the Saudi financial regulatory system, the G20 Financial Supervisory Board has appointed SAMA Gov. Fahd Al-Mubarak chair of the standing committee on standards implementation.
The “Sherpa” track included meetings of ministers and senior officials from government entities that focused on socioeconomic issues, including education, employment, energy, health tourism and the digital economy. The engagement groups represented civil society groups, with representatives of the Saudi business community, women, youth, labor and think tanks and, by all accounts, the issue of youth and female employment dominated the agendas of the G20 meetings. Given the relatively young age profile of Saudi society, where nearly 70 percent of the population is aged under 35, and the encouragement of women’s participation in all aspects of Saudi Arabian life under the Vision 2030 program, this focus was not surprising and of importance to the Kingdom.
The lessons learned by different Saudi G20 stakeholders and wider participants are not to be underestimated. The inclusion of Saudi organizations read like a Who’s Who of leading Saudi institutions, including the Council of Saudi Chambers, Misk, Ithra, the Saudi National Committee for Labor, King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, King Khaled Foundation, Alnahdha Organization for Women, the Royal Commission for Riyadh City and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. The inclusion of such Saudi organizations, as well as private sector businessmen, was important in many respects, as the Saudi participants not only expanded their technical skills, but also forged new friendships and networking contacts for future cooperation on mutual issues of concern. In essence, the Saudi G20 presidency has provided a generation of future Saudi leaders with unique international exposure.
Under Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency, the Kingdom also ensured that other non-G20 members and international organizations were invited, in addition to the G20 members. In 2020, Jordan, Singapore and Switzerland were invited as guest countries, along with Spain, which is a permanent guest invitee to the G20 meetings.
Saudi Arabia’s invitations went to regional organizations including the Arab Monetary Fund, the Islamic Development Bank, as well as the UAE (chair of the GCC), Vietnam (chair of ASEAN) and Rwanda (chair of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development). This provided an additional range of diversity for Saudi contacts and cooperation.
The 2020 G20 Riyadh Presidency, the first-ever G20 meeting held in the Arab world, has brought into focus the challenges faced by countries in the Middle East, especially in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of a new digital era.
Substantive issues such as attracting quality investment, sustainable energy, reforming labor markets, creating opportunities for a largely youthful population and women’s participation were extensively debated, with lessons being taken on board. Saudi Arabia is keen to implement the G20 leadership’s final recommendations. Given the experiences gained and lessons learned from the G20 presidency, the Kingdom is now more than ready to effectively participate in the forthcoming 2021 G20 meetings in Rome.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is a former senior banker and Professor of Finance and Economics, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran.