Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) attend a press conference held at the end of the Arab League Summit in Jeddah on May 19, 2023. AFP
On Friday, Bashar Al-Assad arrived in Saudi Arabia to head his country’s delegation to the Arab Summit in an end to the country’s 12-year absence from the meetings of the pan-Arab organization. For Assad and his regional and international allies, this is a big diplomatic victory.
With no big political concessions, Assad was invited back to the Arab organization that had in 2011 suspended Syria’s participation to reprimand his regime’s violent reaction to pro-democracy protests that later turned into a full civil war with interventions from the Islamic State and other terror groups.
Political re-positioning was the motivation behind the return of Assad. The return of Syria was decided earlier in the month during an extraordinary Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab league.
However, this re-positioning had started back in 2018 when the United Arab Emirates decided to open up to Assad, arguing that it might be more likely to encourage him to move towards political reconciliation if re-integrated in the Arab body.
This year, Saudi Arabia, which had previously vetoed the return of Assad, re-positioned itself as part of a wider Saudi foreign policy re-positioning whose key moment was the détente with Iran and the de-escalation in Yemen after close to a decade-long war to deter the Iranian-supported Houthis.
“It is very clear that Saudi Arabia has been re-positioning for a while on foreign policy; this is essentially about the wish of the new leaders in Riyadh to put their country in the driving seat of the region,” said one Cairo-based foreign diplomat.
He added that this push has led the Saudis to be engaged in foreign policy files that they would not have traditionally been keen to engage in only a few years ago.
In the lead up to the summit, Saudi Arabia hosted meetings for delegates of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces that have been at war with each other for political dominance since 15 April. However, the meetings failed to produce a ceasefire and failed to secure consensus on a roadmap for an eventual end of the war in Sudan.
This said, diplomatic sources say that Riyadh is planning to continue with its leverage-backed mediation in Sudan, especially that it is now officially the rotating chair of the Arab summit.
Saudi Arabia is also a member of an Arab League group that is in charge of political mediation in Sudan. However, the Saudi political mediation in Sudan is not fully coordinated with the other members of the group, according to an Arab diplomat.
Also, ahead of the Jeddah summit, Saudi Arabia sent a delegation to Libya to consult on the re-opening of the Saudi embassy in Tripoli. In May 2014, Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in the Libyan capital and withdrew all its nationals out of the country amid a civil war between the leaders of the east and the south of the country. The Saudis have not announced a date for the re-opening of their diplomatic mission. However, according to a source who spoke briefly from Jeddah, “judging by the level of hospitality that was offered to the head of the Libyan Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Menfi [in Jeddah], progress should be expected soon.”
Saudi Arabia’s strongest move to re-position itself came with its invitation for President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to address the Arab Summit. In his statement before the summit on Friday, the president of Ukraine praised the Saudi mediation, last year, that helped secure the release of prisoners of war held by Russia. In his statement, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, who presided over the summit rather than his father King Salman, promised continued Saudi political engagement to facilitate a political end to the Russian war on Ukraine.
There are different interpretations regarding the Saudi decision to have Zelensky coming over to Jeddah. A dominant interpretation, shared by several diplomats, is that having upset Washington over its push to re-integrate Assad, Riyadh opted for a balancing act by having Zelensky over. Another diplomatic read suggested that the Saudis are showing off their political weight in a clear signal that their international role is no less significant than their regional role.
Arab leaders left Jeddah without any consequential resolutions – not even on the Arab-Israeli struggle despite attempts by Riyadh to re-launch its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative in an updated version. The resolutions that the Arab Summit adopted on Friday did not really carry big news. However, they left with an unequivocal understanding about the irreversible new diplomatic clout that Riyadh is assuming under its ambitious crown prince.