In the age of viruses, even summits are virtual

<pre><pre>In the age of viruses, even summits are virtual

LONDON – The face-to-face tension between the enemies had disappeared. So was the in-person camaraderie among the allies.

Gone are the makeshift and urgent "bilats,quot;: bilateral meetings between leaders to resolve a trouble spot. The image of a leader bent over another seated counterpart disappeared, whispering conspiratorially in one ear before, perhaps, sharing a laugh. Gone are, for now, the lavish dinners and toasts perfected according to the cultural traditions of the host nation.

Like many other things in the coronavirus era, the government as a world leader attending the high-level summit has collapsed without ceremony.

Thursday's virtual meeting of the Group of 20 nations, with the participation of more than a dozen heads of state, was less a world summit and more a powerful conference call. It lasted approximately 90 minutes, the same as a standard soccer game, instead of the two most usual and languid days.

Hangzhou, Hamburg, Buenos Aires, and Osaka had hosted meetings in previous years. By 2020, it was going to be Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Chaired by Saudi King Salman, who is chairing the G20 this year, the goal of the meeting was to address the pandemic and its economic implications as people lose their income amid closures, curfews and blockades.

In the opening remarks, the Saudi king said: “This human crisis requires a global response. The world is counting on us to unite and cooperate to meet this challenge. "

But joining never seemed more like a metaphor than in this particular "gathering,quot;.

Extraordinary images emerged on social media from photos in the conference call gallery, the kind legions around the world, pushed to work from home, have grown accustomed to seeing in recent days.

Instead of unshaven or clothed colleagues, were the President of the United States, Donald Trump, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, the Indian of Narendra Modi, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron and the Canadian Justin Trudeau, among others. , interacting in pixels with the Saudi monarch.

Instead of the wall-to-wall live video coverage and the photographers' cameras, the only indication that the virtual summit had started was a lone ticker on Saudi television.

What else causes the virtual summit? It makes transparency even more of an issue. There were no media briefings where journalists could ask probing questions to leaders or their deputies. No attendees were on the sidelines, available for the media to clarify, add context, and answer probing questions.

For Saudi Arabia, this was not what they expected or wanted. When his crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, attended the G20 summit in Argentina in late 2018, he was largely an outcast. The video showed him alone, apart, after worldwide revulsion at the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. The guilt of many sectors rested firmly on his door.

Then came some salvation: Russia's President Vladimir Putin headed firmly for Bin Salman, and they exchanged a strong five with a broad smile. For better or for worse, these are the kinds of personal moments that define high-level summits.

There was no such time on Thursday. There were only pixels and screens, digitized audio and leaders in scattered rooms on a beleaguered planet. When world leaders met on Thursday, they did so separately. And then, without ceremony, without food, without shared group photo, they hung up and continued their increasingly uncertain days.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Tamer Fakahany is AP Deputy Director for Global News Coordination and has helped direct international coverage for AP for 17 years. Follow him on Twitter at

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