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Vaccines, golf, Khashoggi: key talking points at cyber G20

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Saudi and foreign media representatives listen to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remotely addressing a press conference, at the G20 summit’s Media Center in the capital Riyadh, on November 22, 2020. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)

Landmark promises on vaccine access, a US president gone golfing, and awkward questions for the Saudi hosts about the murder of campaigning journalist Jamal Khashoggi have dominated this year’s virtual G20.

Here are key quotes from the event.

Solidarity vs. COVID-19


The novel coronavirus has claimed at least 1,381,915 lives globally, according to an AFP tally, since the World Health Organization announced the emergence of the virus in China in December.

Distribution of the breakthrough vaccines dominated the debate at this year’s G20, with questions raised about availability in less-developed countries, as rich nations snap up the lion’s share of doses being pumped out by pharmaceutical firms.

“We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The leaders said in their final communique that they would “spare no effort” to ensure the vaccines were affordable and fairly distributed but did not specify just how they would do that.

“Over the past seven months, countries have invested $10 billion in the effort to develop vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. But $28 billion more is needed — including $4.2 billion before the end of the year,” UN chief Antonio Guterres said on the eve of the summit.

Critics’ corner


German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first leader to cast doubts on the fruits of the summit’s labours.

Shortly after the Saudi hosts had wrapped up the cyber gathering she complained that, despite the lofty pledge, no major vaccine agreements had been struck yet for poorer nations.

“We will now speak with (global vaccine alliance group) GAVI about when these negotiations will begin because I am somewhat worried that nothing has been done on that yet,” she said.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro also spoke out, attacking “unjustified” criticism during the meeting of deforestation in his country.

“We’re always working to ensure a high level of protection and reject unjustified attacks by countries which are less competitive and less sustainable,” he said.

Trump doubles down


In a brief appearance before heading off to play golf, US President Donald Trump paid tribute to his own handling of the pandemic, in what one source listening into the call said was an exercise in “self-publicity”.

He also doubled down on his refusal to concede defeat in this month’s presidential elections, won by President-elect Joe Biden.

“It’s been a great honour to work with you and I look forward to working with you again for a long time,” he said, despite his term expiring on January 20.

In Sunday’s session on climate change, Trump said he withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord because it “was not designed to save the environment. It was designed to kill the American economy”.

“I refuse to surrender millions of American jobs and send trillions of American dollars to the world’s worst polluters,” he said in his swansong on the world stage.

Question and answer


The shadow of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has complicated Riyadh’s efforts to shine a light on the kingdom’s economic reforms.

Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih was asked at a briefing if the slaying by Saudi operatives in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018 acted as a deterrent to foreign investors.

In a country where officials are unaccustomed to tough questioning from reporters, the moderator asked the journalist to take the query elsewhere, but Falih insisted on answering.

“Investors are not journalists, investors are looking for countries where they can place their trust in an effective government that has proper economic decision-making,” he said with a shrug.

The world is watching


“The whole world is watching”, a voice off-screen told Saudi Arabia’s King Salman as the annual G20 summit went live slightly prematurely in what might have been 2020’s highest-stakes video call.

The event was a jarring reminder of the changes the world has undergone this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite many months of practice working virtually, Chinese President Xi Jinping could still be seen with an aide brandishing a remote control while French President Emmanuel Macron was caught being handed a soft drink.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria hastily put his mobile phone away after realising he was in the shot as a thumbnail, alongside the other delegates whose feed framed the hosts, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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