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Critics slam 'shameless hypocrisy' of Saudi G20 meeting as women activists sit in jail

Human rights groups and democracy activists are calling on diplomats, politicians and blue chip companies like HSBC, Mastercard and PepsiCo to boycott a business conference launching this week in Saudi Arabia.

As current chair of the Group of 20 major economies, or G20, Saudi Arabia will be hosting the B20 business event from Monday, ahead of the summit of world leaders in November.

The virtual business event promises to place a "special emphasis" on "creating a more equitable future for women in the business world," but rights groups say that flies in the face of the reality on the ground in the Persian Gulf kingdom, which has imprisoned women's rights activists.

"Saudi Arabia's real change-makers are behind bars," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Leaders must not be fooled by this shameless hypocrisy, and we call on them to show they care about human rights as much as business opportunities."

Saudi authorities arrested at least a dozen female activists in 2018, and rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say some have faced abuses while imprisoned, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied the allegations. Government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

NBC News also approached HSBC, Mastercard, PepsiCo and other companies scheduled to attend for comment. At the time of publication, none had responded.

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.Marieke Wijntjes / Reuters file

Among the women who were detained is Loujain al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned after she campaigned for women to drive. Women's rights blogger Nouf Abdulaziz is also behind bars, as is Nassima al-Sada, who has worked to end the male guardianship system, which required a male relative's permission for women to travel or marry, among other things.

Al-Hathloul's sister Lina announced the creation of a new website in honor of her sister on Monday morning, highlighting the activist's detention and work in winning Saudi women's right to drive and dismantling parts of the maleguardianship laws.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — widely seen as the power behind the throne — has presented himself as a reformer, eager to transform the deeply conservative society, he has also presided over sweeping crackdowns on dissent, arresting intellectuals, clerics, women's rights activists and members of the vast royal family.

A prominent critic of the crown prince, Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, welcomed the calls for a boycott.

"The G20 offers the Saudi regime a platform towards the most economically powerful countries to normalize its repression of the population," she said, adding that the Saudi regime had "lost all its credibility and legitimacy."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has overseen reforms for women, but rights groups say many female activists remain in detention.Saudi Royal Palace / AFP - Getty Images file

As part of the B20 event, the world's largest oil exporter said it would also create an "Action Council" to develop policy recommendations about issues such as gender parity and diversity in the workforce.

The foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said in a video on Twitter last week that the Saudi government believed "that women are an important element of the strength of society, therefore they enjoy a firm guarantee in the Kingdom's laws and regulations."

He added that the country would "take all measures" to ensure that "their rights are protected."

After being appointed de facto ruler by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in 2017, the crown prince implemented a number of reforms as part of the country's "Vision 2030" campaign — a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil.

Under his leadership, reforms were also introduced enabling women to drive, travel without permission and gain better access to jobs. The young crown prince has also relaxed social rules for cinemas and curbed the powers of religious police.

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This year, Saudi Arabia was ranked as the top improver among 190 economies in the World Bank's Women, Business and the Law 2020 report, placing it second in the Arab world.

While the bold social changes led to praise for the powerful young royal, Saudi Arabia's image abroad has been tarnished by the long war in neighboring Yemen. So far, it has killed over 100,000 people and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.

The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, slain in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, by fellow Saudis, also damaged the country's international standing. In 2018 the CIA determined that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing — a finding firmly rejected by Riyadh.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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