Ukraine s President Volodymyr Zelensky greeting Saudi officials next to the Deputy Emir of Mecca, Prince Badr bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz (R), in Jeddah (photo: AFP)
Officials and diplomats from some 40 countries attended a meeting in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah to discuss the possibility of an end to the war that started over a year ago when Russian troops moved into the east and south of Ukraine. The situation grew more intense in recent weeks as Ukraine launched its long-awaited counteroffensive. So far, all attempts to broker a peaceful settlement between Moscow and Kyiv have failed.
American and Ukrainian delegates took part in the Jeddah Summit, but Russia was absent. It was not clear if the host, Saudi Arabia, failed to invite the Russians or if Riyadh and Moscow agreed in advance on excluding Russia. The Kremlin had made it clear before the summit that its outcomes would not be formally acknowledged. Yet Russia said that Saudi Arabia is going to brief Moscow on those outcomes anyway.
The most significant part of the Jeddah Summit on Ukraine is the participation of countries that have remained neutral and treated the conflict as a struggle between Russia and the West. The Western media is mainly upbeat about the prospect of the Saudis including China and India in the summit. Neither country took part in a similar meeting in Copenhagen in June, which they saw as a US-led Western meeting siding with Ukraine. The American media’s reporting on the two-day summit on the weekend highlighted the Saudi initiative to bring in countries of the global south that have kept away from Western efforts to broaden support for Ukraine. It is not only India and China that maintained good relations with Moscow and resisted American pressure to renounce it by joining the Western alliance supporting Kyiv. Countries like Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and others that have stayed neutral so far between the West and Russia did too.
Analysts and commentators are not expecting anything groundbreaking from the Jeddah Summit. Limited support is also expected for the 10-point plan launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But Kyiv sees the summit as part of a diplomatic push by Ukraine to reach the South. Ahead of the summit, Zelensky said he hopes the talks will lead to a peace summit of global leaders to endorse the principles in his plan for a settlement.
It is not expected that countries like China, India or South Africa will change their minds that easily after the Jeddah Summit. “The chances of Ukraine getting Russia to agree to return the territories it has taken are nil. This looks more like being about letting Zelensky down gently... The major non-Western powers [attending Jeddah meeting] won’t help Ukraine with that,” Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that, “for Zelensky, he just wants to keep the show going, the illusion that there is still a chance to get back what he lost.” But such diplomatic boasting is not only to Zelelnsky’s benefit. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in seeking a more prominent global role as a peace mediator too: “The Saudis look good at getting as many parties together as possible. It can’t hurt to try, there’s no loss in it.”
In a lengthy report this week, the New York Times concluded: “For Saudi Arabia, which has long served as a mediator in regional conflicts, the gathering in Jeddah is notable because the kingdom is involving itself prominently in a crisis of the highest global priority.” The paper also noted that for Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman “the talks this weekend offer another chance to try to position himself as a world leader with influence well beyond his region and as a mediator who can bring the neutral states to the table.”
China, India and other countries came to Jeddah mainly because they want to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile they did not think it would cost them much to “attend and discuss” without any commitment to Zelensky’s plan – i e without antagonising Russia and Putin. Some commentators even suggest that Saudi Arabia is focused on a key point: convening the meeting. Those commentators are referencing Saudi mediation in the Sudan conflict, which hasn’t yielded much.
Almost all analysts and commentators, even officials participating in the Jeddah Summit who spoke to the media, doubt that the meeting would have any effect on the war happening on the ground in Ukraine. They will probably fail to garner the anticipated support to Ukrainian provisions to start peace talks. Yet the summit served many international relations purposes beyond the war. “Everybody went back from Jeddah with something, even if the real outcome is nothing”, as one commentator put it. The main benefactor of this spectacle is Saudi Arabia in its desire to appease the US without antagonising Russia.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly