Diplomatic success for the Crown Prince
It wasn't just the usual suspects around the table at the conference in the Saudi capital, Jeddah. Representatives from 40 countries came together at the weekend for the conference on Ukraine.
Admittedly, of the warring parties, only Ukraine attended; Russia stayed away. But the significance of these talks in Jeddah lies less in the outcome, than in who turned up to discuss the war in Ukraine for the first time. The Jeddah talks are not merely between Ukraine and its supporters, the Europeans, the USA and Canada.
At the conference, the Ukrainian delegation presented their plan for peace, which includes a return to their country's territorial integrity, and the complete withdrawal of Russian troops – demands that were met in Saudi Arabia with a global reality check.
Saudi Arabia's new role
The result of this reality check remains unclear. All that could be teased out of the participants at the close of the conference, including an EU representative, were the words "fruitful" and "positive". China took pains to emphasise that it had not come to give the Ukrainian peace plan its blessing, but to listen and to take part in the discussion.
Participants' talk of a follow-up conference means that behind the scenes, they found sufficient common ground for further discussions. There will apparently be working groups at this second meeting, on topics such as food security – an important issue for the global South – nuclear security, and a potential prisoner exchange, as an EU representative explained.
For Saudi Arabia it was certainly also about image. The country's de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has until recently been an international pariah following the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi in 2018. Now this period is over, and all the European states as well as the USA have started selling their wares to Saudi Arabia again. But there is more for Saudi Arabia to gain here.
It is already an important regional player, and has recently begun to act as mediator in a number of other conflicts, most recently the war in Sudan, though without success. This year, Saudi Arabia has already hosted the Arab League summit at which Ukraine's President Zelensky appeared as a special guest.
Access to Russia
Zelensky's speech there was the first indication that Crown Prince bin Salman is keen to play a part in the resolution of the Ukraine war. Now the country, on whose oil (and its prices) the whole world depends, wants to establish itself as a global political player, too, and a mediator in crises and conflicts.
There are several reasons for Europe and the USA to let the Saudis play this role. They hope to involve Saudi Arabia more closely in the Western alliance for Ukraine, and to get clear statements from Riyadh condemning Russian aggression. They can also see that Saudi Arabia represents an indirect point of access to Russia, and is a candidate for the role of mediator for that reason.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been cultivating its relationships with Russia, most likely in the knowledge that as the USA slowly withdraws from the Middle East, it is no longer smart to rely solely on Washington, particularly when it comes to security policy.
Then there are its shared interests with Russia when it comes to black gold. Both oil-producing countries are members of the OPEC+ group. There are also its relationships with Beijing, which Riyadh has been steadily building up over the last few years.
Good relations all round
The deal between regional arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in March, which saw both governments agree to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies in each other’s countries, was brought about through Chinese mediation. These days, good relationships with the USA, Russia and China are in short supply. Another reason why Saudi Arabia is able to take on this role.
But the meeting in Jeddah was about more than the hope that Saudi Arabia could become a mediator – and it was also much more than just a Saudi PR exercise.
It showed a recognition that, although the war is taking place in Europe and on the borders of NATO, and thereby also of the USA, negotiations for ending the war require a more global formula, in which countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa can be involved and even help to achieve more.
The conference in Jeddah was therefore a kind of pilot. We may be fairly certain that nothing decisive on ending the war in Ukraine has come out of it. But there was a decision to continue, even if the process is arduous. And there is one thing that this meeting did achieve: the search for an end to the war in Ukraine will now be conducted on an extended, global scale.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin