Saudi palace advisor Fahad Toonsi played with a string of prayer beads and leaned forward to tell a rare story from the Crown Prince's inner circle.
When the kingdom was about to begin a year in the international spotlight to host this year's group of 20 gatherings, Prince Mohammed bin Salman had rejected event logos designed by some of the world's leading agencies to pursue something typically Saudi , Time was running out, Toonsi told his audience of top Saudi journalists, but the prince didn't move.
They ultimately chose a symbol based on a traditional form of weaving by a 28-year-old local designer, Mohammed Al-Hawas. The leadership of the group "is something that we as Saudis take great pride in," said Toonsi, who also heads the Kingdom's G-20 Secretariat.
The attention to detail at the highest level reflects what is at stake for Saudi Arabia, as it welcomes executives from the world's largest economies after a time when Prince Mohammed's reformist zeal has often been overshadowed by outrage at a murdered critic, addressing human rights disputes, right-wing groups and the kingdom's leading role in the grueling five-year war in Yemen.
While many in Saudi Arabia are likely to find irony when global climate change meetings and empowerment of women take place – the conservative Islamic Kingdom is an oil-fired power plant where women have only recently been allowed to drive and where strict clothing rules are being loosened – Saudi officials see only possibilities.
The presidency of the club, which accounts for at least 80% of global economic performance, hopefully offers the opportunity to improve this severely tarnished international reputation and to promote efforts to establish the kingdom as a business and tourism destination, an important pillar of Prince Mohammed's initiative diversify the economy.
Finance ministers and central bankers will come to Riyadh for the first cabinet-level G-20 meeting on Saturday, and events will culminate in a summit of heads of state and government in November.
"The kingdom is the focus," said Saudi media minister Turki Al-Shabanah, who was on stage next to Toonsi at an event in Riyadh this week. "How can we take this opportunity to tell our story and speak positively about it?"
It's not an easy task after two years, dominated by stories of Saudi agents killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, detaining activists, and most recently a claim by Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos, Prince Mohammed, vehemently contested by Saudi officials were personally hacking his cell phone.
"There have been very serious incidents that have given the impression that the country is in complete confusion and that it does not comply with the courtesy rules of international diplomacy," said Dorothee Schmid, head of the Turkey and Middle East program at Ifri, a leading French Institute for International Relations. "There is a lot at stake regarding the image and credibility of this G-20."
Some of these incidents remain unsolved. Women's rights activist Loujain Al Hathloul, who is accused of regime change and communication with diplomats and foreign journalists, is still on trial while others who have been arrested alongside her are imprisoned or in prison. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition's bombing campaign in Yemen continues despite efforts to end the war, a rift with neighboring Qatar remains unresolved, and full diplomatic relations with Canada have yet to be resumed after a spit in 2018.
Although there was no evidence that participants boycotted the G-20, as they had in Saudi Arabia's previous events after Khashoggi's assassination, there will be some notable absences this weekend. As of Wednesday, the UK had not sent a high-level delegation, China, Russia or Turkey. The central bank governors of Germany and India and the South African finance minister were also not expected.
Build the Spree
Those who do so will have a first-hand look at the infrastructure investments fueled by the prince's economic plan in the capital, Riyadh, including the red and white concrete barriers that blocked the city when workers urged a massive one Complete subway project.
According to Lodging Econometrics, a US real estate consultancy, almost 60 hotels are being built in Riyadh alone. Eight might be ready when the G-20 leaders arrive in November. While this would add around 1,000 to the approximately 17,000 rooms already available, it could still be a challenge to find suitable accommodation for all delegations: Osaka, host of last year's summit, was planned for 30,000 participants.
Saudi Arabia expects around 10,000 visitors to attend the final summit itself, Toonsi said. In addition to G-20 events, the kingdom is planning more than 50 conferences and forums this year, which will attract "as many as 250,000 visitors," he said.
The rise in construction could give the Saudi economy a boost. Jadwa Investment, a Riyadh-based investment firm, predicts that the G-20 will drive additional 0.2% non-oil growth this year, with an increase in business tourism that will fuel consumption.
At the event where Toonsi spoke, however, the focus was on consolidating the kingdom's soft power. When waiters handed out tiny cups of tea with golden trays, officials discussed ways to change the international perception of Saudi Arabia.
"This is our chance to inspire the world with our identity and vision," said Fatima Al Qarni, member of the Shura Advisory Council.
Under Prince Mohammed, the government relaxed social restrictions, sponsored mixed-gender concerts, and ended a practice that required women to get a male guardian's permission to travel. Many Saudis fervently support the leadership and reject criticism as attempts to undermine the transition.
However, it is the simultaneous political process that has dominated global headlines since 2017, when Prince Mohammed led a controversial anti-corruption campaign and detained dozens of the kingdom's most powerful men at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel, where the G-20 will also be held.
Saudi officials want to reverse this story. Toonsi pointed out that Saudi's G-20 presidency coincides with the opening of the Kingdom to tourism. Officials are planning to roll out the red carpet of Saudi hospitality and show visitors the changes in the kingdom, he said.
When the event ended, the organizers distributed badges embossed with the logo, a swirling ribbon that was patterned like a Bedouin carpet.
"This is just the beginning," said Al-Shabanah, the media minister.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)