Saudi Arabia’s ancient Red Sea port city Jeddah, stewing in the steamy heat of the world’s hottest summer on record, is not the obvious pick to cool the world’s fiercest conflict, currently raging in Ukraine.
Yet, the desert kingdom’s king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS for short – thinks he can help. Last fall he had a role in the release of Western mercenaries captured by Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine. Now he is hosting a summit to discuss peace in the country.
Ukrainian officials say the venue is a boon for them “that completely destroys the narrative of Russia” that Ukraine is only supported by “countries of the collective West.” They expect as many as 40 nations to be represented, including the US and India.
In the days ahead of the summit, the Ukrainians set out their intent. “Our goal in Saudi Arabia is to develop a unified vision of the formula and to work out the possibilities of holding the future Global Peace Summit,” they said, referring to Ukraine’s peace plan.
That Moscow will only “monitor” and not attend risks the summit becoming a desert snowflake, momentarily awesome and inspiring, but blink and it’s gone.
Even so Ukrainian officials are pinning their hopes on it, “to unite the world around Ukraine.” The White House is sending National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
US State Department officials are billing it as “Ukraine in the driver’s seat,” an opportunity to find a “potential diplomatic resolution to the war” and for nations who might otherwise not hear directly from Kyiv to talk face-to-face with Ukrainian officials.
The first session of this series was quietly hosted by the Danes in June, and gathered 15 nations, many from the global south whom to varying degrees are sympathetic to Putin’s argument the war was “necessary,” that NATO forced him to invade Ukraine.
That summit produced no major headlines, nor a discernable drift to Ukraine’s prerequisite for peace that Russian troops exit Ukraine. So what is different this time?
For one, Saudi Arabia, unlike Denmark, has not overtly taken a side in the war. More significantly MBS has leverage. Like the roads that led to Rome in its day, Saudi Arabia is increasingly at the confluence of competing global interests.
President Biden came in July last year, China’s President Xi visited a few months later. Both had business with MBS.
Biden was able to build on their shared diplomatic achievement, a peace deal in Yemen a few months earlier. Xi talked business, and signed memorandums of understanding worth billions of dollars, but unbeknownst to most they were only a few months away from a seismic diplomatic breakthrough.
In spring this year, Saudi Arabia and China announced a confidence-building peace plan with Iran to repair their hostile relationship. So far it has worked. Iran’s proxies in Yemen, the Houthis, have stopped attacking Saudi with Iranian-made ballistic missiles.
The two nations have reopened diplomatic missions in their respective capitals and come fall will likely extend their newfound cooperation into commerce.
What MBS wants most is a stable oil market and stronger trade relations throughout the Gulf. Disagreements in the region alone are dangerous. The war – between oil-rich, nuclear-armed Russia and Ukraine – could be catastrophic.
If he can tame that tiger, he can better plan how to deliver his otherworldly and insanely expensive visions of a future Saudi Arabia diversifying from oil yet employing the country’s huge young population.
His ambition is what drives him every day. In his ideal world, Saudi Arabia would be a dominant geopolitical player.
Part of Biden’s pitch to MBS when they met last year was: Don’t cut oil production, it hurts my citizens at the gas pumps at home, and by the way, helps Russia fund its war in Ukraine by driving up oil prices.
So what did MBS do a few months later? Cut oil production. Saudi officials say they are reading the oil markets correctly and only changed production to suit their own “national interests.”
That point didn’t go down so well in Washington. Yet today the cardinal law of diplomacy would say MBS has potential leverage over Russia. If the Saudi potentate can raise oil prices he could also lower them. Not to say that he will, but he could, and Putin will know that too.
The sort of diplomacy MBS is involved in is reimagining the role of Gulf Arabs. Stakeholders with real clout, not the rivals at each other’s throats of yesteryear.
It’s a work in progress, but he sees where he wants to go and part of that involves one of the Middle East’s thorniest issues: Saudi’s rapprochement with Israel.
On that, Saudi negotiations with the US are underway, and reportedly include domestic energy nuclear power plants, F-35 fighter aircraft and security guarantees for the desert kingdom.
The US wants compromises from the Saudis, and vice versa.
All of this of course is way outside the scope of the Jeddah peace summit and Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine. Yet it shows where there are a lot of pieces in flux, a cornucopia of potential quid pro quos, and growing possibilities of what can be achieved.
Not least, as Ukraine’s biggest backer, US appreciation that Saudi stepped off the diplomatic sidelines to help Zelensky.
There are other areas beyond Iran where China and Saudi interests align, not least their mutual concerns about the risks to their economies of an untamed war escalating out of control on the edge of one of their biggest markets, Europe.
Without China’s economic support, Russia’s economy and its ability to wage war in Ukraine could crumble. To a lesser extent some of the global south nations who may be around the table in Jeddah also help prop up Putin’s war by buying gas, oil and other commodities he can no longer sell in Europe.
It is exactly these countries the Ukrainians most want to impress with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 10-point peace initiative in Jeddah. Although it was published in December last year they think it has been rubbished by Russian propaganda and hope to reverse the damage.
Only last week Putin ignored his own illegal invasion and blamed Ukraine for a lack of peace when African Union representatives at a Kremlin-sponsored Africa conference in St Petersburg pressed him to seek a ceasefire.
In a typical Kremlinesque inversion of logic and reality, he told them that “in order to start the process an agreement is needed from both sides,” that “a ceasefire is hard to implement when the Ukrainian army is on the offensive.”
Countering Putin’s revisionist lies will likely keep Ukraine’s representatives in Jeddah extremely busy, with officials saying they plan to meet individually and collectively with other delegates about “each point of the [10-point] Peace Formula.”