Jeddah in Saudi Arabia hosted an international conference to address the Russia-Ukraine conflict in early August
On 5-6 August the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia organised peace talks on Ukraine. More than 40 countries, including India, the United States, and European countries, Brazil, South Africa, and China participated in them, but not Russia. The Ukrainian delegation in Jeddah was led by Andriy Yermak, presidential adviser and head of the president’s office. The basis of the talks was the Ukrainian 10-points peace proposal. Yermak is later reported to have remarked that the summit in Jeddah will enter history as a “rehearsal of a future world, which has no place for stone-age aggression”. The talks in Jeddah were, predictably, not expected to yield any statement or document. But the participants agreed to hold another meeting of political advisers within about six weeks. A couple of months prior to the talks the kingdom had hosted Ukrainian president Volodimir Zelensky who had addressed the Arab League summit ongoing then, explaining the Ukrainian position.
#SaudiArabia 📍Jeddah Conference on Ukraine 🇸🇦🇺🇦
The productive consultations on a peaceful resolution to Ukraine’s conflict saw participation by 39 countries, including the USA 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/d9j8TMBqHK
— Saudi Embassy USA (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) August 8, 2023
Following the talks, a senior Ukrainian official told the media that the weekend’s talks in Saudi Arabia had dealt a “huge blow” to Russia, while Russian Permanent Envoy to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said that “By definition, it was far from real peace-oriented efforts since a major actor – Russia – wasn’t invited. It made no sense at all…”
Obviously, inviting only one party to a conflict to a meeting to resolve the same conflict is a non-starter. Having just entered into a truce with archrival Iran earlier this year, Saudis would know this well. So, what was the Jeddah meeting all about?
There are two plausible explanations: One is for Saudi Arabia to reclaim its leadership of the region where mediating has become a calling card for such leadership; the second is to show up Saudi Arabia and China as the leaders of the non-aligned or “neutral world” – that is primarily those countries who have maintained neutrality on the Ukraine war and are mostly from the Global South.
As change has been sweeping through KSA and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the country under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Sultan or MBS, as he is popularly known, has encountered numerous challenges in its foreign policy. The war in Yemen, the Arab Spring, the spat with Qatar, the strain in relations with the US and Turkey, together with internal challenges of corruption, employment and a burgeoning youth population, have necessitated a rethink. This has been manifested in the way the Saudis have reached out to Qatar, reinstated Syria into the Arab League, mended fences with Turkey and capped all of this with its rapprochement with Iran earlier this year facilitated by China. Along with this, MBS also seeks to reclaim the mantle of regional leadership, which the kingdom is well endowed to.
Peace-making or mediation is a key part of expanding a country’s geopolitical profile and the region is no stranger to it. Qatar is still basking in the glory of facilitating the US-Taliban peace accords, the UAE has played a behind the scenes role to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, Turkey helped broker the Black Sea grain deal between Russia and Ukraine. Now it is the turn of Saudi Arabia. The Ukraine war has further opened an opportunity for KSA as it has pushed oil prices and given the world’s largest crude exporter a leverage over both the US and Russia. While the former needs to maintain low oil prices with President Joe Biden moving into election year, Russia relies on its oil and gas exports to finance its Ukraine operations. Hosting an event like the Jeddah talks projects the kingdom as a responsible, neutral, and capable power not just in the region or in the Muslim world but as a global one; simultaneously, with no strings attached. And not without reason. If Ukraine talks held in Copenhagen couple of months earlier had only around 15 countries present, then Saudi Arabia managed to get 42 countries together, with more participation from countries with a neutral stand on the war, like the African countries, together with others like India and Brazil.
Even India was represented at a higher level by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval at Jeddah, than it had been at Copenhagen. Jeddah also became the venue where the Ukrainian delegation held more than 30 bilateral meetings with participating countries.
The icing on the cake of the Jeddah talks, however, was undoubtedly the presence of China, which was represented by its Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui. China had at the beginning of this year put forth its 12-point peace formula which critics say was not a peace deal, as it put no pressure on Russia, but merely put forth China’s position on the war. Western countries had rejected it and in turn, Beijing had refrained from attending the Copenhagen meeting. However, in Jeddah, China was a major presence, much to the delight of Western countries, where it patiently heard out the Ukraine proposal. Like Saudi Arabia, China too does not have any expectation of any concrete result. Russian analyst Alexander Gabuev has described China’s peace proposal as a document that “is sooner a rebuttal to Western allegations that China has been a silent accomplice to Russia, and an attempt to bolster its image as a responsible world power in the eyes of developing countries.” This also seems true of China’s participation at Jeddah.
The Arab Barometer polling of MENA residents undertaken between October 2021 and July 2022 found that overall, China’s ratings in the MENA region had improved and “the U.S. consistently lags behind China in the view of respondents to the 12-country survey….” A similar survey of 28 African countries in 2021-2022 show that on average, half of respondents (51%) rate the economic & political influence of China as positive. It is to this gallery no doubt, that, along with Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and China were reaching out to. Of course, like much of the world both the latter would like to see an end to the war. But both know that will take some time coming. “We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles are shared,” Li Hui told Reuters at the end of the talks. Following the Jeddah meet, China’s Global Times quoted Cui Heng, an assistant research fellow from the Center for Russian Studies of East China Normal University as saying that China’s attendance of the conference demonstrates its considerable influence and respect from all parties. In other words, Saudi Arabia clearly understands that without China’s participation, the impact of the talks would be diminished, and the results obtained would be less significant.
One of the consequences of the Ukraine war has been that the Global South has made its voice heard; it is too powerful an entity now to be dragged into one or the other camp. This is the powerhouse that Ukraine wants to reach out to, and one that both the Saudis and the Chinese are tapping into. “The peaceful resolution method actively promoted by China and Saudi Arabia and other countries is the most appropriate and least damaging approach,” the Global Times concluded. Jeddah, it therefore seems, has served as a good platform for both Saudi Arabia and China to raise their standing in the international arena by projecting themselves as concerned, responsible, peace-loving states, something that is useful for both power projection and larger geopolitical goals.