Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Jeddah Summit marked a significant step in Riyadh’s diplomatic strategy, providing a platform for Ukraine’s peace proposal and reflecting the kingdom’s balancing act with global powers, including Russia and China. While navigating complex issues such as global security concerns and regional realignment, the summit demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in international affairs and its nuanced approach to the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict.
On August 5, Saudi Arabia hosted a summit in its Red Sea port city of Jeddah focusing on the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The event brought together senior representatives from more than 40 countries, including those that have maintained a position of neutrality in the competition, notably excluding Russia. While the Jeddah Summit, subsequent to the preceding Copenhagen gathering in June, did not yield a tangible declaration, it held significance by defining a fresh role for Riyadh within the persisting conflict and highlighting the expanding prominence of Riyadh on the global stage.
The stakes are high for Riyadh as it seeks to flex its diplomatic muscle in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict. However, to fully understand the driving forces behind Riyadh’s hosting of the Jeddah Summit, one must consider the Saudi leadership’s domestic, regional, and international visions.
Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Summit transcended the immediate goal of finding a peaceful end to Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was a platform for Riyadh to assert its rising regional role, engage in a careful balancing act, foster growing relations with China, and address security and energy concerns stemming from the conflict. By leading the path toward peace in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Saudi Arabia sought to simultaneously increase significant economic and security leverage and maximize the diplomatic opportunities presented by this conflict.
From Regional to Global Repositioning
At the regional level, Saudi Arabia’s recalibration of diplomatic relations is evident in its sequential normalization of ties. This includes reconciliation with Qatar following the al-Ula agreement, rapprochement with Turkey, and more recently, engagement with Iran through a deal facilitated by China. These strategic moves underscore Riyadh’s deliberate realignment within the region. By effectively mitigating regional conflicts, Saudi Arabia’s parallel normalization efforts with neighboring countries harmonize with the broader international context, which is currently focused on the persistent Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—the de facto ruler of the kingdom—Riyadh is increasingly striving to position itself as a diplomatic powerhouse in the international arena. Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Jeddah Summit served as a clear sign of its growing prominence in international affairs, adopting a multipolar approach that Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi describes. The Saudi-hosted summit was emblematic of a country that has maintained neutrality toward both Ukraine and Russia since the beginning of the conflict. Throughout the 18 months of the conflict, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and China attempted to play such a role, and Saudi Arabia is the latest to assume this responsibility.
Riyadh’s Balancing Act
The Jeddah Summit represented Riyadh’s attempt to demonstrate the workable balance it maintains between the West and Russia. At the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to join Western sanctions against Moscow led some to perceive a siding with Russia. However, the kingdom also voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
Since the Ukraine-Russia conflict began, Saudi foreign policy has strived to walk a fine line between the two conflicting sides, maintaining open dialogue channels with Kyiv and Moscow. The kingdom and Turkey played a critical role in brokering a prisoner swap process between Russia and Ukraine last year. Riyadh also invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to an Arab summit held in Jeddah in May and pledged a $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine through agreements and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed during Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan’s visit to Kyiv.
On the other side, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are key and influential members of OPEC+, the oil cartel that the two countries lead. Despite occasional tensions, Riyadh strives to maintain cordial relations with Russia to exert control over the global oil market. Although Saudi Arabia has benefited from the absence of sanctions against Russia and the resulting rise in oil prices, the summit represented more than just a matter of international prestige and balanced foreign policy.
Closer to ‘China-In Clubs’
Unlike at the Copenhagen summit, Saudi Arabia succeeded in bringing China to the table at the Jeddah Summit. In addition to China, representatives from three influential BRICS bloc members—Brazil, India, and South Africa—were also present, though Chinese participation held particular significance for the Kingdom. By actively participating, Beijing made a diplomatic gesture, throwing its support behind Saudi diplomacy.
China, a critical factor in facilitating an almost impossible rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, indicated its willingness to attend future summits. For Saudi Arabia, China’s presence symbolized the growing relationship between Riyadh and Beijing. This development aligns with Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East, which has proven successful in recent years and is welcomed by Saudi Arabia, a Gulf country that has begun gravitating toward ‘China-In Clubs,’ such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Saudi Arabia is in an observer status exploring engagement with BRICS and is reportedly in negotiations to join the BRICS Group’s New Development Bank, seen as a counterweight to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In April, Saudi Arabia became a dialogue partner in the SCO. The kingdom’s aspirations to be part of clubs where great powers convene stem from its desire to make a significant impact on the international stage. Its Vision 2030 plans necessitate close partnerships with major powers. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the Jeddah Summit should be understood within this broader context, as it reveals what motivates Riyadh to assume the role of a mediator in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.”
Navigating Global Risks and Partnerships
Riyadh is acutely aware that prolonging an untamed war escalating out of control on the edge of Europe could be catastrophic, posing grave risks to global food security, energy security, and nuclear safety. The Saudi diplomacy seeks a stable oil market, enhanced trade relations throughout the Gulf, and closer economic and security ties with global actors such as Russia, China, and the U.S. Although the Jeddah Summit did not produce breakthroughs regarding these concerns, the most tangible outcome was the establishment of working groups. These groups aim to focus on solutions related to global food security, nuclear safety, environmental security, humanitarian aid, and the release of prisoners of war and kidnapped children.
Here, it is essential to clarify the true nature of the Jeddah Summit. Contrary to descriptions by several media outlets, the summit was not a meeting for peace talks, as the Russian side was absent, and peace talks require conflicting sides to be at the table along with a mediator. Instead, the Jeddah Summit served as a platform for Ukraine to present its 10-point peace proposal on how the war should end, reaching out to various countries, including Russian allies and critical actors from the Global South.
Here, it is also important to clarify what the Jeddah summit was about. Unlike several media outlets had described, it wasn’t a meeting for peace talks because the Russian side was absent. Peace talks require conflicting sides to be at the table along with a mediator. The Jeddah summit was rather a meeting that gave Ukraine a chance to make its 10-point peace proposal on how the war ought to end clear to several countries, that includes Russian allies and Global South’s key actors.
The prospect of another summit hinges on Russia’s response in the coming months. Ukraine hopes to convene a global peace summit in the fall, but the question of Russia’s participation looms large. Although Russia was excluded from the Jeddah Summit, Moscow closely monitored the meeting and even requested a briefing from Saudi Arabia. Navigating the delicate balance between advancing Ukraine’s 10-point peace proposal and maintaining close ties with Russia poses a formidable challenge for Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, through adeptly executed equilibrium strategies and a multidimensional diplomatic approach, Saudi leadership appears to have likely accomplished its intended objectives through the Jeddah Summit.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.