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Saudi Arabia's peace talks on Ukraine highlight its global strategy

An increasingly confident Mohammed bin Salman is slowly revealing the extent to which Riyadh is willing to take advantage of an emerging multipolar world
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Kyiv, on 26 February 2023 (AFP)

More than a dozen countries are gathering this weekend in Saudi Arabia for a two-day summit on peace talks over Ukraine.  

While Russia won't be present, it has said that it will observe the talks, in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, from afar. Brazil, India, Turkey and Japan are set to attend, in addition to a number of other European countries and the United States, with China yet to confirm. 

For Riyadh, and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, it's somewhat of a diplomatic coup - perhaps a crowning achievement for a man who in 2018, following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, was an international pariah. 

Mohammed bin Salman has confounded his critics with mirth and patience. The war in Ukraine has been a welcome gift to the Saudis, forcing critics, such as US President Joe Biden, to travel to the Gulf kingdom to repair ties. 

Sanctions on energy from Russia, one of the world's top suppliers, could not go hand in hand with alienating the world's swing producer of last resort, Saudi Arabia. 

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Yet this weekend's international summit in Jeddah does bring together a number of threads, including the crown prince's rehabilitation and the contours of his country’s emerging political vision for the region, and its place in the world. 

“Rather than tying themselves to particular global camps, key GCC states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now assertively setting their own agendas and balancing between global players to maximise their gains,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

China’s rise, America’s relative decline in the region, the emergence of regional middleweight powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also slowly changing the dynamics of global politics.

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE have embraced emerging multipolarity," Barnes-Dacey told Middle East Eye. "They both view their own roles - empowered by the post-Ukraine global pursuit of allies and energy resources - as that of major shaping actors that no longer need to accept diktats from external actors.”

Regional leader, global player

Saudi Arabia has also grown increasingly confident in following what it sees as its own priorities. 

The crown prince has brushed aside US pleas to increase oil output and even faced down the ire of the Biden administration by working with Russia to keep oil prices at a level needed to fund Riyadh’s budget and big infrastructure projects. 

Mohammed bin Salman also took the US administration by surprise earlier this year when he normalised relations with Iran, in negotiations brokered by China. 

'MBS sees that Saudi Arabia could benefit from the changing dynamics in the world order… and gain more ground for strategic balancing'

- Abdullah Baabood, Carnegie Middle East Center

Sensing that the Biden administration wants a major diplomatic breakthrough in the region by getting Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel, the crown prince has made it clear that he will not play ball without receiving some major concessions. 

One of Riyadh's key conditions on normalisation of relations with Israel is help from the United States to create a civil nuclear programme, according to reports.

By sending Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, to Jeddah this weekend the Biden administration looks keen to honour the summit with a senior administration official and perhaps butter up the kingdom with a level of respect it has long felt it deserves.

The peace summit on Ukraine is also about Saudi Arabia bringing together western countries and the global south, which have eschewed sanctions on Russia, Abdullah Baabood, a non-resident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told MEE. 

“This goes in line with Mohammed bin Salman's new vision, his strategic aim and ambitions for Saudi Arabia to be a regional leader and an important global player,” said Baabood. 

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Like many in the global south, Saudi Arabia avoided “curtailing their balanced positions [on the war in Ukraine] and their strategic autonomy” as a result of western pressure, he added. 

“MBS sees that Saudi Arabia could benefit from the changing dynamics in the world order and the rise of China and other global powers to recalibrate the kingdom's relations with the US and gain more ground for strategic balancing and more space for manoeuvre,” said Baabood.

For Saudi Arabia's investment minister, Khalid Al-Falih, a new, multipolar world has emerged, one that is no longer dominated by the West. 

"We like to believe, and I think it’s been proven, that the kingdom is a significant part of this multipolar world that has emerged. And we’re going to play our part, not only in developing our own economy, but also developing our region," Falih said in a recent interview

Saudi-first foreign policy

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky is also keen to support the Saudi peace initiative, in a bid to corral allies in any future final settlement.  

Perhaps the image that best encapsulates Riyadh's new political vision came when, in June, Zelensky, at the invitation of Mohammed bin Salman, gave a surprise speech at the Arab League summit, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Russian ally, was welcomed back into the regional fold by Saudi Arabia after almost a decade.

The optics were easy to interpret: Saudi Arabia is happy to provide a platform to different visions of global power, but, in the end, it will pick and choose from both. 

While similar peace talks in Copenhagen failed to produce any discernible results, Saudi Arabia can claim that it’s keeping up the diplomatic momentum on finding a peaceful outcome to the conflict, while shielding itself from criticism that it's allying too closely with Russia. 

[Mohammed bin Salman wants to be seen] as a goodwill facilitator of peace talks involving a conflict that has underlined and accentuated a major global rift'

- Yonatan Touval, Mitvim

“The talks seem more about coordinating a global consensus on the general parameters for a possible solution that would be acceptable to Ukraine,” said Yonatan Touval, an analyst at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim).

“For Mohammed bin Salman, the content of the talks is less important than the auspices - that is, his diplomatic stance as a goodwill facilitator of peace talks involving a conflict that has underlined and accentuated a major global rift.” 

There are also signs that the 37-year-old crown prince is acutely aware that regional conflicts, such as in Yemen, and diplomatic spats with important regional players have not served the kingdom well. 

“In this context, it is noteworthy that Riyadh has been mending its fences with both Doha and Ankara even as it has sought to replicate and ultimately outperform them both,” said Touval. "Hence, too, the thawing of relations with Tehran."

While the Ukraine talks in Jeddah certainly contribute to meeting some of these objectives, it's “unclear at this stage how effective their efforts will be”, Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, told MEE. 

“Saudi Arabia is diversifying its political and economic relations with global powers, in line with the realities of an increasingly multipolar world order. But even as Saudi Arabia increases ties with China and Russia, the US will remain its primary security partner for the foreseeable future.”

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