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With the world struggling to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, G20 countries met virtually to discuss the impacts on the global economy and health. Saudi Arabia is the current chair of the G20, and the country organized the virtual meeting at the end of March ahead of the planned G20 summit this November in Riyadh.

The world economy has been tossed upside down by the lethal spread of COVID-19 which has touched every major economy and brought many regions and industries to a standstill.

It has also thrown foreign diplomacy, with many politicians, ministers, and even world leaders testing positive for the virus. The airline industry is almost entirely shut for business with many countries closing borders or rejecting planes from coronavirus hotspots.

In the Middle East, Iran has been the biggest hotspot for confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, but it has impacted all nations. According to Johns Hopkins University, Iran has nearly 50,000 cases with 3,000 deaths, Israel and Saudi Arabia also have 6,211 cases and 1,720 cases, respectively (as of 2 April).

In their virtual meeting, trade ministers from the G20 countries agreed to keep their markets open for essential goods and vowed to inject $5 trillion into the world economy.

In a joint press statement, G20 leaders said, “we reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

However, with global economic uncertainty and an uneven response to the crisis around the world, many are still left with questions after G20 leaders’ assurances.

 

Will G20 Members Meet Face-to-Face?

Japan waited as long as they possibly could to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics, and while the G20 does not create the same stream of tourists, it is still a massive event requiring international travel.

There is no consensus on what the world will look like in November, but many governments are already preparing their populations for COVID-19 to come back in the winter months even if the world manages to get it under control.

Cop26, a UN climate conference, was set to take place in November in Glasgow, but it has already been postponed until 2021 by organizers. The UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, said “the world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule Cop26.”

Thus far, only preliminary G20 meetings have moved online, and there has been no indication as to whether the November meeting in Riyadh will continue as planned.

Due to the 2012 MERS outbreak, Saudi Arabia was better positioned than many other countries to handle the wave of COVID-19. The Saudi government has put in stringent rules including suspending access to pilgrimage sites, but the region’s response has not gone as smoothly as South Korea, another country prepared due to recent outbreaks.

While Saudi Arabia may be able to take control of COVID-19 faster than Europe or North America, major economies are preparing for a sustained period of economic inactivity and social distancing. From where we sit now it’s hard to imagine many diplomatic meetings between foreign leaders will take place in-person for the rest of 2020.

 

Rippling Effect on Foreign Diplomacy

With governments scrambling to limit damage to public health and pump money into their national economies, much of coronavirus coverage has been focused on domestic politics. But the virus also has a clear and direct impact on foreign relations that extends to all geopolitical calculations.

In some cases countries look to, at least temporarily, mend strained relations to combat the spread of the virus, but others are hardening stances. The US-Iran relationship is perhaps the starkest example of the latter scenario.

The United States has doubled down on sanctions against Iran after calls for sanctions to be relaxed so Iran can respond to its devastating spread of coronavirus. In the midst of COVID-19 ravaging America, President Trump tweeted, “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

The Saudi-Iranian proxy war ripping apart Yemen is also continuing unabated by the threat of coronavirus. While a ceasefire has been agreed to, conflicting reports detail continued airstrikes.

The United Nations also called for a complete nationwide ceasefire in Syria. Despite peace talks in the northeast of Syria, the UN is still worried and said, “the current arrangements are far from ideal for the front-line response demanded by the COVID-19 outbreak.”

G20 leaders have asserted that they are committed to fighting the pandemic and helping “especially the most vulnerable.” But, with diplomatic conflicts and war still raging, much more needs to be done to ensure that all people in the Middle East and the world are better protected.

Whatever form the G20 takes in November, whether it be held virtually, with smaller travelling parties or postponed altogether, its focus clearly will shift to coronavirus response. The choices individual leaders make can have a great impact, but more coordination is needed to achieve the best outcomes.

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