World's top economies are virtually debating Covid-19 action plan and measures to stem the pandemic's impact on global economies, including debt relief for the poorest countries.

This image shows the leaders' family photo at G20 summit virtually held in Saudi Arabia, on November 21, 2020.
This image shows the leaders' family photo at G20 summit virtually held in Saudi Arabia, on November 21, 2020. (Twitter/@g20org)

Saudi Arabia has opened the G20 summit as a first for an Arab nation, with the virtual forum dominated by efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and the worst global recession in decades.

The two-day meeting of the world's wealthiest nations that began on Saturday comes as President Donald Trump refuses to concede a bitter election and campaigners criticise what they call the G20's inadequate response to the crippling economic crisis.

"It is unfortunate that we are unable to host you in person in Riyadh, due to the exceptional circumstances that we are all facing this year," King Salman, the summit's hosts, told world leaders in opening remarks via videoconference.

"Our peoples and economies are still suffering from this shock. However, we will do our best to overcome this crisis through international cooperation," he said, as de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looked on.

In his speech, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the world, especially developed countries, didn't give a good test of solidarity in the coronavirus pandemic.

He said Turkey is in favour of fair share of global growth within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules but demanded a reform process of WTO. 

He said Turkey gave aid to 156 countries and nine international agencies in pandemic and urged G20 leaders to ensure everyone has access to the vaccine.

World leaders have huddled virtually as international efforts intensify for a large-scale roll-out of coronavirus vaccines after a breakthrough in trials, and as calls grow for G20 nations to plug a $4.5 billion funding shortfall.

Amid a raging pandemic, the summit – usually an opportunity for one-on-one engagements between world leaders – is reduced to brief online sessions of what some observers call "digital diplomacy".

'We need to show global solidarity'

"We need to avoid at all costs a scenario of a two-speed world where only the richer can protect themselves against the virus and restart normal lives," French President Emmanuel Macron told the summit.

To do that, the European Union urged G20 leaders to quickly put more money into a global project for vaccines, tests, and therapeutics called Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.

"At the G20 Summit, I called for $4.5 billion to be invested in ACT Accelerator by the end of 2020, for procurement & delivery of COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines everywhere," European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter.

"We need to show global solidarity," she said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin offered to provide Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to other countries and said Moscow was also preparing a second and third vaccine.

China, where the pandemic originated a year ago, also offered to cooperate on vaccines. China has five home-grown candidates for a vaccine undergoing the last phase of trials.

"China is willing to strengthen cooperation with other countries in the research and development, production, and distribution of vaccines," Xi told the G20 Summit.

"We will ... offer help and support to other developing countries, and work hard to make vaccines a public good that citizens of all countries can use and can afford," he said.

Group portrait of G20 leaders

The pandemic dampened Saudi Arabia's hopes of using the event as a grand coming-out party on the world stage. 

Still, the kingdom hosted a gala musical event on the eve of the summit and planned an aerial display of its passenger and aerobatic planes over Riyadh on Saturday.

Without an opportunity to take the traditional "family photo", at the gala they projected a group portrait of G20 leaders onto the ruins of the historical town of Diriyah, close to the capital.

Organisers said climate change was among the issues topping the agenda.

Turkish, Saudi leaders speak by phone

Ahead of the summit, Erdogan spoke with King Salman by phone, the president’s office said on Saturday.

The leaders discussed improving relations between the two countries, the statement said.

"President Erdogan and King Salman agreed to keep channels of dialogue open to improve bilateral ties and overcome issues," the Turkish presidency said.

Debt restructuring plan

G20 nations have contributed more than $21 billion to combat the pandemic, which has infected 56 million people globally and left 1.3 million dead, and injected $11 trillion to "safeguard" the virus-battered world economy, organisers said.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development projects global economic output will contract by 4.5 percent this year.

But G20 leaders face mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults across developing nations.

Last week, the bloc's finance ministers declared a "common framework" for an extended debt restructuring plan for virus-ravaged countries, but campaigners say the measure is insufficient.

The ministers had extended a debt suspension initiative for developing countries until June next year.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged G20 leaders to offer a "firm commitment" to extend the initiative until the end of 2021.

Not clear if Trump will speak 

International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva has warned that the global economy faces a hard road back from the Covid-19 downturn even as vaccines are now in sight.

G20 nations must help plug a $4.5 billion funding gap in the so-called ACT-Accelerator –– a programme that promotes an equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines –– to rein in the pandemic, said a joint letter to the group from Norway's prime minister, South Africa's president, the heads of the European Union and the World Health Organization.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch Trump defender, will be in Saudi Arabia on the second day of the summit.

It was unclear whether Trump, who continues to reject his election loss, will speak at the event. 

Many of his fellow G20 leaders have already congratulated his rival, President-elect Joe Biden.

Saudi human rights record 

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has cast a shadow on the gathering, as campaigners and families of jailed activists launch vigorous drives to highlight the issue.

Key among them are the siblings of jailed activist Loujain al Hathloul, on hunger strike for more than 20 days demanding regular family contact.

But some Western officials have indicated human rights will not be raised at the summit, saying they prefer to use bilateral forums to discuss the issue with the Saudi government.

"The G20 presidency has conferred an undeserved mark of international prestige on the (Saudi) government," said Michael Page from Human Rights Watch.

"Instead of signalling its concern for Saudi Arabia's serious abuses, the G20 is bolstering the Saudi government's well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as 'reforming' despite a significant increase in repression."

READ MORE: HRW to G20: Hold Saudi Arabia accountable for rights abuses

Source: TRTWorld and agencies