Of brains and breakthroughs

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 16 Aug 2023

A “Sadat moment” is that moment that marks a breakthrough in an intractable crisis. It happens thanks to a political initiative that triggers a shift in the negotiating climate, rendering it more conducive to the search for a solution.


 According to the convention set by its author, President Anwar Al-Sadat, the moment is born of the firm conviction that the crisis at hand – the Israeli occupation of Egyptian and Arab territory, in his case – is amenable to a diplomatic solution. However, this conviction was informed by several corollaries, the first being that the US holds the key to the solution, being the only country with the ability to influence Israel.

Secondly, the US would not feel compelled to act as a superpower unless it saw that the crisis was too costly and entrenched to tolerate. In this case, the October War of 1973 demonstrated that the occupation was materially and militarily costly for Israel as well as for the US, which had to compensate Israel for losses sustained at a time when it was confronting a rival nuclear power, the Soviet Union. 

All this had grave implications for global security and the well-being of the planet. Simultaneously, the “oil weapon” wielded by Saudi Arabia also played an unprecedented role in this war, generating a global economic crisis that caused long queues outside Western petrol stations and sent tremors throughout the global economy.

The compound military/security and economic crisis put paid to the state of “no war, no peace” which had prevailed since the June 1967 War and offered no prospects for either a military or negotiated solution. But another crucial factor was needed. President Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem had as much of an impact as the Arabs’ surprise joint offensive in changing the equations. It was this visit that changed the negotiating environment by opening a path to a solution based on the principles of land-for-peace with regard to the occupied territories and the two-state solution to the Palestinian cause.

Today, Saudi Arabia has spearheaded another moment for the sake of peace. It aims to stimulate a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine, which is now in the middle of its second year with no victory in sight for either party and no proposed solution on the table acceptable to all sides. Even the prospect for a humanitarian ceasefire is not forthcoming.

The conflict in Ukraine may not necessarily become another “forever war,” but it is likely to drag on long enough to severely exhaust the belligerents and the rest of the world with them. As the situation currently stands on the ground, Ukraine’s counteroffensive appears bogged down as costs in lives and equipment mount on both sides.

As a result, Russia has increased its missile bombardments of civilian areas and infrastructure, while Ukraine has increased its drone strikes on Russian territory and against Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea. Such escalation generates further hatred, complicates peacemaking efforts and further protracts the war. Another result of the military escalation is the destruction of Ukrainian wheat silos and portions of the port of Odessa.

The main victim of this is the Black Sea grain initiative and consumers affected by the rising costs of wheat. This is not to mention the impacts that Western sanctions are having, not just on Russia, but on the rest of the world and the companies that deal with Russia, all of which have wrought havoc on the global economy. 

The Saudi approach to the current moment stems from an awareness of the detrimental impact of the war on European and global security. It further reflects the understanding that the limited prisoner exchange deals and food supply agreements no longer serve their intended purpose and are instead used as means to pressure the other side and to penalise members of the international community for positions seen as too favourable to this side or that. Under such conditions, a bloc of peacemakers consisting of nations with direct or indirect influence on the course of the hostilities or that are harmed and threatened by the war can have moral and motivational value.

At first, the international media imagined something in the nature of the peace movement of the 1960s opposed to the US war in Vietnam but led by state actors this time. However, the Saudis’ diverse and complex consultations steered the initiative to a more dynamic path, beginning with a consultative conference of senior national security officials.

Rather than a nebulous demand for peace, it posed a central formula as a basis for a negotiated solution: opposition to the Russian occupation of territory in Ukraine; and opposition to the threat to Russian security posed by NATO expansionism and, above all, the accession of Ukraine on top of Sweden and Finland.

This formula, in its initial framing, appeared in the 12 point Chinese initiative of 24 February 2023, founded on the principles of respect for the sovereignty of all nations, abandoning the Cold War mentality, the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of negotiations. 

The first round of talks yielded encouraging results, especially given that both China and the US took part with high-level representation. Ukraine’s presence brought a good dose of global sympathy while China praised the Saudis’ bridge-building efforts.

Russia’s absence was perhaps useful at this stage, as this averted bouts of wrangling and aggressive media posturing on the part of both Washington and Moscow which, in all events, would be kept in the loop on what was happening in the talks by Beijing. 

Although 40 countries took part in the talks in Jeddah, little information as leaked about their substance. That was also a characteristic of the Sadat moment. Preventing leaks at this early stage in negotiations helps pave the way to future rounds whether at the head-of-state or other levels.

There is no reason to expect the current Saudi Sadat moment to be any less complex than Egypt’s Sadat moment a half century ago.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: