G20 financial leaders tackle coronavirus epidemic at Saudi meeting

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Aside from an action plan to shield the world economy from the impact of the outbreak, financial leaders from the world's top 20 economies are also expected to discuss ways to achieve a fairer global taxation system for the digital era.

"Finance ministers and central bank governors will discuss global economic outlook and possible policy responses to support growth and safeguard against downside risks," G20 organisers said in a statement.

"In addition, they will discuss the priorities of the Saudi G20 Presidency under the theme 'realising opportunities of the 21st century for all'... including the tax challenges arising from the digitalisation of the economy."

The meeting in Saudi Arabia, the first Arab nation to hold the G20 presidency, will be chaired by the the kingdom's finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan and central bank governor Ahmed al-Kholifey.

The meeting comes amid growing alarm over the new coronavirus as Chinese authorities lock down millions of people to prevent the spread of the disease, with major knock-on effects for the global economy.

The impact of the epidemic may be short-lived but it comes as the global economy remains "fragile", IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva told a gathering in Riyadh on Friday.

Georgieva said the economic impact could see a "V-shaped" trajectory, with a sharp decline in China's GDP followed by a sharp recovery.

She warned the situation could have more dire consequences for other countries as the impacts spill over.

Read also: Muslim-American Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar condemn Saudi crown prince over 'executing children'

The virus has now claimed 2,345 lives in China, cutting off transportation and forcing businesses to close their doors.

China has said it will not be sending any leaders from Beijing for the Riyadh gathering but the Chinese ambassador in the kingdom will instead lead a small delegation.

"We have been closely watching the developments of the virus and assessing its potential effects on economic growth," a senior US Treasury official told reporters.

"We expect ministers and governors will discuss the global economic outlook, particularly as it relates to the coronavirus outbreak."

The G20 organisers will also host a ministerial-level symposium on international taxation on Saturday, focused on the challenges arising from the digitalisation of the global economy.

The symposium will be attended by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin along with a host of other financial leaders.

The Saudi presidency will see it host world leaders for a summit in Riyadh from November 21 to 22.

It will hold more than 100 events and conferences in the run-up to the summit, including ministerial meetings, organisers say.

 

Human rights groups have urged G20 member states to exert pressure on the kingdom over its intensifying crackdown on dissent, which has seen women activists, journalists and political dissidents jailed.

On Wednesay, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he planned to raise US concerns about human rights during a visit to Saudi Arabia, in particular the case of Saudi-American doctor Walid Fitaihi, who is facing trial after being barred from leaving the kingdom.

Fitaihi, a physician from the Boston area, was detained in Saudi Arabia in November 2017 during an unprecedented anti-corruption crackdown initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that targeted senior princes, ministers and businessmen.

Some 200 people were detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh for weeks, and even months, and forced to sign over billions of dollars in assets to the government during the shakedown, which helped the young crown prince consolidate power.

Fitaihi was released from detention last summer, but he and seven members of his family, all of whom are US citizens, have been barred from leaving Saudi Arabia while he stands trial, the congressmen said. It is unclear what specific charges Fitaihi faces.

Protections for human rights have significantly deteriorated under the crown prince, with thousands of people detained without charge or judicial procedure, in some cases for over a decade.

The prince's reputation was dealt a serious blow after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, prompting business leaders and heads of state and business to boycott a major investment conference in the kingdom that year.

A mild critic of the crown prince, Khashoggi was living in exile and writing about the prince's crackdown on critics and activists when agents who worked for the Saudi prince killed and dismembered him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Despite being a US resident and having three children with US citizenship, Washington has been accused of failing to reprimand the kingdom, allowing Saudi Arabia's leadership to continue grave violations of human rights with impunity.

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