The peace summit for Ukraine in Saudi Arabia ended without a joint final declaration, but the exchange was “very honest and open,” said Ukrainian chief of staff Andriy Yermak after the end of the meeting. In fact, very different parties came together in the Saudi port city of Jeddah: There were the countries of the Global South, such as India and Brazil, which have so far remained neutral in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and have resisted Western efforts to position themselves more strongly against Russia. There were countries like Egypt, which suffered particularly badly after the Russian halt to the agreement on Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea. And this time there were also close allies of Russia, such as China, represented by special envoy Li Hui, who was not represented at the informal preliminary talks in Copenhagen last June.
Russia itself did not receive an invitation to the talks in Jeddah. Even before the end of the meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that the talks were doomed to failure, a senseless and futile attempt by the West to get countries of the Global South to side with Ukraine.
Only the words “fertile” and “positive” could be elicited from the participants after the conference, including an EU representative. China made a point of emphasizing that it did not come to give its blessing to Ukraine’s peace plan, but to listen and participate in the discussion.
The fact that the participants speak of a follow-up conference means that enough intersections for further consultations have obviously been found behind the scenes. There should then be working groups there, for example on the subject of food security, an important topic for the global South, also on nuclear safety and a possible exchange of prisoners, as an EU representative explained.
In addition to the US, China and Europe, central emerging countries such as India and Brazil and several African countries were also invited. Representatives of Ukraine and the West therefore hoped that the diplomatic push could lead to the heads of state and government agreeing on principles for ending the war – and on this basis future peace talks between Russia and Ukraine can be held to Kiev’s advantage.
Before the summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke via video message. As recently as last May, he attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia and accused the Arab states of “closing their eyes to the horrors of the Russian invasion.” Now he is striking a different note: “The greater the consolidation of the world in restoring a just peace, the faster the bombs and missiles with which Moscow wants to replace the norms of international law will be put to an end,” he said.
Both Russia and Ukraine are important grain suppliers. A year ago, they agreed on a UN-Turkey brokered deal that included the reopening of three Ukrainian Black Sea ports and pledges that incoming ships would not be attacked.
The fact that the peace summit took place in Saudi Arabia seems paradoxical at first glance. The Gulf monarchy has frequently angered the West in the past year. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, the powerful oil producer has been using its influence in energy markets to keep oil prices high. Riyadh continues to coordinate closely with Moscow on this. The United States asked the crown prince to work with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase global exports in order to lower prices.
Instead, OPEC cut back oil production, which led to inflation – and to the outrage of the US government, which feared the loss of votes due to the sharp rise in gasoline prices. The Saudi state oil company Aramco, meanwhile, made a record profit of 161.1 billion US dollars in 2022 – 47 percent more than in 2021.
While Saudi Arabia isn’t directly circumventing sanctions against Moscow, it is buying cheaper diesel from Russia for domestic consumption, freeing up more of its own oil for export at higher profit margins. This helps Putin to cushion losses from Western sanctions. The US therefore accused Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia.
Saudi Arabia has long been trying to mediate in the Ukraine war. In addition to the attempt to repair its image, this could also be due to Riyadh’s increasing dissatisfaction with Moscow’s oil policy. The Crown Prince wants to keep the price of oil high in order to be able to finance infrastructure projects for his “Vision 2030”. Putin, in turn, is exporting more oil to fill the war chest.
The Saudi media focused primarily on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “humanitarian initiatives and efforts”. The aim is to strengthen international peace and security and to spare the world further security policy and economic effects of the conflict, reports the Saudi news agency SPA. Riyadh’s advance comes at a time when the kingdom is increasingly committed to an independent foreign and economic policy. This phase began above all after years of dependence on the US. After Riyadh realized that it couldn’t rely on the US, especially after the Yemeni Houthi rebels attacked oil refineries, they turned around and headed east.
The good relations with China and Russia not only help the kingdom to diversify its own economy, but also make it easier to deal with diplomatic challenges. After Western criticism of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the regime and for which the CIA blamed the Saudi king’s son Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi-Western relations increasingly deteriorated. It was only after the war in Ukraine and the oil crisis that some European leaders and US President Joe Biden made contact again – Riyadh noticed that. True to the motto: If you need something from us, moral concerns are suddenly of secondary importance.
Saudi Arabia does not have to fear such a diplomatic change either from Russia or from China – at the same time, Riyadh is anxious to maintain relations with the West and finally to leave its own bad image behind. Because there are also differences in dealings with the eastern partners: Tensions recently arose with Moscow as part of the expanded oil cartel Opec+, and Riyadh also knows when dealing with Beijing that one cannot hope for protection with a view to one’s own security. In fact, Mohammed bin Salman is currently negotiating with US President Joe Biden for a rapprochement with Israel, but the list of Saudi demands is long: from their own civilian nuclear program to a NATO-like promise of protection by the US. The summit on the Ukraine war is now the perfect opportunity for Saudi Arabia to sell the unwelcome eastern alliances to the West as an advantage from which everyone can ultimately benefit.
Good relations with the US, Russia and China are in short supply these days. One more reason why Saudi Arabia could take on this role. There are several reasons why Europe and the US have accepted this role for the Saudis. It is hoped to involve Saudi Arabia more in the Western alliance for Ukraine and to get clearer statements from Riyadh against Russia’s aggression. You can also see that Saudi Arabia is also an indirect door to Russia and therefore lends itself to the role of mediator.
But there was more to the Jeddah meeting than the possible hope for Saudi Arabia as a mediator, it was also far more than a Saudi PR event. It was an acknowledgment that while the war is taking place in Europe and on the borders of NATO, and therefore also the United States, negotiations to end the war need a more global formula that also includes countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa and can achieve even more.
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