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EXCLUSIVE: Sadiq Khan reverses decision to take part in Saudi G20 mayors summit

London mayor to withdraw official observer to avoid implication that it 'means support for the Saudi government'
Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, has led the city since May 2016 (AFP/File photo)

London mayor Sadiq Khan has reversed his decision to participate in a Saudi hosted summit this week, to avoid the implication that it means "support for the Saudi government," Middle East Eye has learned. 

The Urban 20 (U20) mayor's virtual summit is being hosted between 30 September and 2 October by Saudi Arabia as part of its chairmanship of this year’s G20, and will discuss the challenges faced by major global cities.

'It has never been the mayor's intention to attend this U20 summit and his invite has previously been formally declined. No one is representing him at the summit or speaking on behalf of London'

- London mayor's spokesperson

MEE revealed on Tuesday that a member of the Greater London Authority (GLA) would join the meeting as an observer, and that Khan could not participate due to an "existing diary commitment". 

The mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Paris had already withdrawn from the event, citing concerns about Riyadh's human rights record. 

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the London mayor told MEE: “It has never been the mayor's intention to attend this U20 summit and his invite has previously been formally declined. No one is representing him at the summit or speaking on behalf of London.

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“The normal practice is for an official of the GLA to observe such multilateral events as the U20, which cover the most pressing issues of our time, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency - neither of which can be tackled without international cooperation.

“However, to avoid any implication that this observer status means support for the Saudi government, the GLA, exceptionally, will not dial in to view any of the U20 summit sessions this year.”

The decision to withdraw the official comes after a coalition of human rights groups wrote to Khan, among other mayors, to boycott U20 over concerns about Saudi Arabia's record on human rights, foreign policy and climate change. 

"Saudi Arabia’s government is an unfit and inappropriate host for the 2020 G20 summit and Urban 20 convening," the groups said in a joint statement. 

"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." 

A petition set up by Freedom Forward, one of the co-signatories, urging Khan to boycott the event has received over 7,000 signatures.

New York, LA and Paris mayors withdraw

Khan's reversal comes after New York mayor Bill de Blasio withdrew from the U20 meeting last Thursday, citing ethical concerns about the host country.

"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," he said. 

"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."

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti soon followed, stating that he would not take part 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 Tuesday, Paris Mayor Anne 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.

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