What's behind Saudi Arabia's peace efforts in the Ukraine war?

Illustration - Analysis - Saudi/Ukraine
6 min read
15 August, 2023
Analysis: Saudi-hosted peace talks on the Ukraine war are part of Riyadh's diplomatic strategy to achieve recognition on the global stage and balance ties in an emerging multipolar order.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia hosted an international summit in Jeddah to advance efforts aimed at restoring peace in Ukraine.

Although nothing concrete came out of the summit, these talks in Jeddah established a venue for further dialogue concerning Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Kyiv called the summit “productive” in terms of moving the war toward a peaceful settlement. Ukraine and its Western backers hailed the talks as important from the standpoint of obtaining more global support for the principles set forth by Ukraine’s leadership as a basis for ending the war, including a total withdrawal of all Russian military forces from every acre of land within Ukraine’s UN-recognised borders.

Officials in Moscow, who didn’t attend, dismissed the meeting in Jeddah as a failed effort to shift the Global South behind Ukraine.

"Saudi Arabia hosting these talks in Jeddah earlier this month was significant from the standpoint of Riyadh's ability to project greater influence as a diplomatic player"

It mattered that these talks took place in Saudi Arabia, which is conducting an increasingly non-aligned foreign policy in contrast to the Cold War days. This event was the latest illustration of Saudi Arabia’s balanced foreign policy vis-à-vis the Ukraine War, which has enabled the Kingdom to play a special diplomatic role in relation to the conflict.

Riyadh’s positive relations with Ukraine and its NATO backers, on one side, and Russia, on the other, has positioned the Saudis not only to host these latest talks but also to help mediate the September 2022 Russian-Ukrainian prisoner swap and the Viktor Bout–Brittney Griner prisoner exchange three months later.

Since Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman's (MbS) ascendancy began, Saudi Arabia has been busy pursuing global recognition of Riyadh’s status as a major player in the international arena.

That 42 countries from across the world, including Russia-friendly China and India, participated in this summit was significant. The attendance of such non-Western countries, which have been relatively neutral and not necessarily extremely sympathetic to Ukraine’s struggle to achieve a decisive military victory over Russia, spoke to MbS’s rise as an influential and respected statesman on the international stage.

Live Story

“This conference fits perfectly within [Saudi Arabia’s] diplomatic strategies to achieve this recognition,” explained Dr Yasmine Farouk, a non-resident fellow with the Baker Institute Edward P. Djerejian Center for the Middle East, in an interview with The New Arab.

“The message is: Saudi Arabia is not a fence sitter or a swing state as some Western scholars and journalists have called it. It is a global player in its own right, crafting and following its own policies,” she added.

“The fact that Saudi Arabia was able to convene over 40 countries and international organisations was a direct reflection of its broader campaign to diversify relations and position itself as a major diplomatic player and convener on the international stage,” Caroline Rose, the Director of the Strategic Blind Spots Portfolio at the New Lines Institute, told TNA.

“Saudi Arabia is following its national interest. We should expect it to continue doing so,” said Dr Farouk.

As the Kingdom bolsters its credentials as a peacemaker with an increasingly central role in global affairs, MbS makes it abundantly clear that his country is anything but a “pariah” as then-presidential hopeful Joe Biden maintained in 2019.

This month’s summit in Jeddah also built on two other events which took place in Jeddah in May: the Sudan peace talks and the Arab League summit attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who seized that opportunity to convey Kyiv’s message to a large Arab-Islamic audience.

The talks were the latest illustration of Saudi Arabia's balanced foreign policy vis-à-vis the Ukraine War. [Getty]

Wider implications

The symbolism of this Saudi-hosted event will probably matter more than anything else. “Given Saudi Arabia’s quest to position itself as a third-party broker and utilise its convening power as a way to balance out its other parallel negotiation tracks, I don’t see Riyadh taking a bold stance on Ukraine through a proposed settlement plan. Rather, the Kingdom will seek to use this venue as a way to keep diplomatic momentum going, even though it may not achieve real or concrete results,” added Rose.

“I don’t believe that these conferences are going to be any game changer in terms of what’s happening in Ukraine right now. I don’t see either Ukraine or Russia being ready for negotiations, or ready to freeze the conflict. Each side has their own goals. As of now, I don’t see them being ready for any compromise,” said Dr Nikolay Kozhanov, a Research Associate Professor at Qatar University, in an interview with TNA.

“The fact that this forum has been held in Saudi Arabia is more likely a symbol of the international support for the Ukrainian cause against the Russian aggression.”

"The symbolism of this Saudi-hosted event will probably matter more than anything else"

Hosting this event was a way for the Kingdom to improve relations with the Biden administration and reinforce its message to Washington that Riyadh is a critical partner that serves an important role in the international arena - not a country that any serious presidential candidate or politician should call a “pariah”.

The Saudis hosting these talks factored into Riyadh’s efforts to constantly diversify its global partnerships without putting all its eggs in any one basket while demonstrating that the Kingdom is an independent actor.

Live Story

Impact on Saudi-Russia relations

Despite this conference being in support of Ukraine’s struggle, that fact should not necessarily have a negative impact on Riyadh-Moscow relations. Ultimately, the Kremlin understands that Riyadh is attempting to play a balancing act, which at times has required Saudi Arabia to provide Ukraine with some forms of support to various extents.

However, China’s notable participation was likely the worst aspect of these talks from Russia’s perspective. The main reason pertains to Moscow’s efforts to depict Sino-Russian ties as extremely strong - both in relation to the Ukraine war and more broadly. To some degree, China attending the event in Jeddah undermined such Russian efforts.

“If we’re talking about…a negative aspect of this meeting for Moscow, that was the Chinese participation at such an event because Russia and Russian propaganda is trying to portray China as a pro-Russian country, or even as a Russian ally, in the international arena,” Dr Kozhanov told TNA.

“Of course, Moscow sees such conferences as being…anti-Russian and such participation at this event by the Chinese is being seen as a serious blow to this image of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing, which Russian propaganda has been building for quite a while.”

China's notable participation was likely the worst aspect of these talks from Russia's perspective. [Getty]

The future of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic role in Ukraine

Saudi Arabia hosting these talks in Jeddah earlier this month was significant from the standpoint of Riyadh’s ability to project greater influence as a diplomatic player.

What we see in Riyadh’s current foreign policy is a refusal to join one geopolitical bloc against another while instead the Kingdom balances itself between NATO, China, and Russia while also maintaining positive relations with Zelenskyy’s government.

As the Ukraine War, unfortunately, continues to rage on with no end in sight, Saudi Arabia will probably continue engaging all diverse parties that have divergent and conflicting interests in the interest of advancing dialogue about conflict resolution.

Riyadh’s success on this front will strengthen the Kingdom’s growing reputation as a responsible player in the global arena that uses its clout to help the international community address the direst threats to global security.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero