By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
The extraordinary “virtual” G20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia on Thursday will probably be the most significant since the group was founded in 1999. It is no exaggeration to say that all hope is pinned on the leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreeing on a way to confront the biggest threat to our future — the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
The virus has infected nearly half-a-million people worldwide and killed more than 20,000, and those are only the officially reported cases that we know about. Stock markets from Tokyo to Wall Street have fallen. Airline fleets are grounded. Billions of people have been forced to stop work and stay at home. It is now evident that this virus is pitting humanity against a “perfect storm” — a hurricane in the form of disease that could afflict millions and kill hundreds of thousands, and an economic tsunami that could engulf whole countries, destroy infrastructure and hamper recovery for years to come.
This is why Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 gives Riyadh enormous responsibility — not just because it is the host country, but because the Kingdom is uniquely well placed to bring diverse forces closer together in a more effective stand against the coronavirus.
Not only is Saudi Arabia the most influential player in both the Arab and Muslim worlds, it also sets the pace in oil markets. Another advantage is the Kingdom’s positive relations with most G20 member states, largely due to Riyadh’s policy of “looking East” without turning its back on historic ties with the West; Saudi Arabia has a unique ability to liaise with China on the one hand, and with Riyadh’s longtime ally the US on the other. With the exception of Turkey, which in recent years has gone from zero conflicts with its neighbors to creating a new enemy every other day, there is not a single G20 country that would not actively work with the Saudi leadership to find a solution to this crisis.
In other words, if ever there was a time for Saudi Arabia to invest its capital of healthy relations and goodwill, now is that time.
Obviously, the task will not be straightforward, because different countries have different views on what the solution is. On the one hand there is Italy, mourning nearly 7,000 deaths, and Japan, home to the world’s oldest population and fearing a similar fate. On the other hand, there is the UK with its cautious approach to avoid overwhelming the already stretched National Health Service, and the US, where President Trump believes the cure must not be worse than the problem, and warns against long-term self-isolation and shuttered businesses.
There is also the matter of public liberties, and the possibility that our way of life will change for ever — not in the sense of curfews and other restrictions, which many millennials are experiencing for the first time but which are by definition temporary, but our freedom to travel and mingle with others in public places. Look at what terrorism has already done to air travel — the metal defectors, the random checks, removing your shoes in security, having liquids confiscated. The coronavirus will inevitably herald new security measures related to personal health and hygiene, further limiting our freedom to travel, to enter public buildings, open spaces, even places of worship. This is not the first virus of its kind, and it won’t be the last.
Whatever the solution, and the changes that come with it, our lives will not be the same when this is over. As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman puts it: “There is the world B.C. — Before Corona — and there is the world A.C. — After Corona.”
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas