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Sadiq Khan to send official to Saudi summit as three major cities lead boycott

London will send a representative to the 'Urban 20' meeting in Riyadh despite New York, LA and Paris withdrawing from G20 mayor's summit over rights concerns
Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, has led the city since May 2016 (AFP/File photo)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

A representative from London will attend a Saudi-hosted summit this week, and the city's mayor Sadiq Khan has chosen not to follow other global leaders and speak out about human rights concerns in the kingdom, Middle East Eye has learned. 

The Urban 20 (U20) mayor's summit is being hosted between 30 September and 2 October by Saudi Arabia as part of Riyadh’s chairmanship of this year’s G20. 

London mayor Khan, Berlin mayor Michael Muller, New York's Bill de Blasio, Paris's Anne Hidalgo, and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti were among a host of global leaders invited to discuss issues facing major cities. 

Last week, a coalition of human rights organisations, including the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group and London-based ALQST, wrote to the mayors urging them to boycott the event, citing concerns about Saudi Arabia's record on human rights, foreign policy and climate change. 

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"Saudi Arabia's government is an unfit and inappropriate host for the 2020 G20 summit and Urban 20 convening," the joint statement read.

"As an absolute monarchy without any form of meaningful democratic representation, the Saudi government has a long record of silencing the very voices that are necessary for a meaningful global conversation regarding the massive challenges we collectively face," it said.

Khan's office told MEE that the mayor would not be attending the summit due to an "existing diary commitment" and that a mayoral representative would virtually attend relevant sessions in an "observer capacity".

"Sessions will be observed given the global significance of the U20 in discussing the most pressing issues around the world today, such as Covid-19 and the climate emergency, which are of importance to London. City hall officials have participated in the U20 process since its inception," a spokesperson said. 

When asked about the concerns raised by human rights groups in the letter to Khan and other mayors, the spokesperson said: "The Mayor's office is not involved in deciding the host of the G20 or U20 meeting." 

MEE gave Khan's team a further day to specifically address the human rights concerns raised by the groups. However, the mayor’s office opted not to do so. 

New York, LA and Paris mayors withdraw

The comments from Khan are in stark contrast to the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Paris, all of whom have pulled out of the conference and spoken out against the host country. 

De Blasio withdrew from the U20 meeting last Thursday, citing ethical concerns, and urged other mayors to follow suit. 

"The global Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how crucial it is for cities across the world to work together while standing up for what's right. We cannot lead the world without speaking out against injustices," New York’s mayor said in a statement. 

"We must stand united for combating climate change, advancing peace and protecting human rights. I urge my colleagues in other global cities to join me in withdrawing from this year's [Urban 20] summit and demanding progress."

LA mayor Garcetti soon followed, stating that he would not attend and would use such forums to "promote democratic values". 

"We share your concerns about the state of human rights, women's rights and civil liberties in Saudi Arabia," Garcetti's office wrote in an email to Freedom Forward, one of the co-signatories of the letter. 

"We will keep using our membership in international organisations, our regular dialogues with partners at home and abroad, and our participation in multilateral convenings and forums to promote democratic values," the LA mayor said. 

On Wednesday, Paris mayor Hidalgo became the latest to join the boycott. 

"The mayor of Paris will not participate in this conference which is to take place virtually by video conference," the office of Anne Hidalgo said, according to Le Parisien. "She cannot consider doing so while Saudi Arabia is keeping Loujain al-Hathloul in detention, who was made honorary citizen of the city of Paris in 2019."

Women's rights activist Hathloul has been detained by Saudi authorities since May 2018, after protesting the male guardianship system and the ban on women drivers - which has since been lifted. Hathloul's sister Lina welcomed Hildago's withdrawal on social media. 

'Same posture as Conservative government'

"It is astonishing that London Mayor and Labour Party member Sadiq Khan is adopting the same posture of silence as the UK's Conservative government regarding Saudi Arabia's human rights crimes," Sunjeev Bery, executive director of Freedom Forward told MEE. 

"Mayor Khan should end his silence and boycott the Saudi G20 mayor's meeting. He should not be sending an observer to a Saudi event that is essentially a propaganda tool for a brutal monarchy that seeks to whitewash its many human rights crimes."

Freedom Forward launched a petition urging Khan to boycott the summit, which has received over 7,000 signatures in two days. 

"Saudi Arabia's monarchy has starved and bombed thousands in Yemen while imprisoning political reformers and women's rights activists at home. Prime Minister Boris Johnson should not be selling them more weapons, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan should not be sending a delegate to attend their events," Bery said. 

Last year, Khan expressed his opposition at the world's largest arms fair, hosted by Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which was held in London and was attended by delegates from Saudi Arabia and other countries.

"London is a global city which is home to individuals who have fled conflict and suffered as a consequence of arms and weapons like those exhibited at DSEI," Khan said. 

The UK has sold in excess of £5bn of weapons to Riyadh since a Saudi-led coalition launched a military offensive in Yemen in 2015. 

Last week, British opposition figures accused the government of "turning a blind eye" to war crimes in Yemen, in light of it resuming selling weapons to Saudi Arabia after banning arms sales to the kingdom in June 2019. 

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