Saudi Arabia is hosting talks on the war in Ukraine on Saturday in the latest flexing of its diplomatic muscle, with the ambitious objective of “reaching a solution that will result in permanent peace.”
Don’t get too excited though as expectations are mild for what the gathering in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah might achieve.
The meeting, which Ukrainian organisers had said would include representatives from nearly 40 countries but not Russia, began on Saturday afternoon and according to an agenda seen by AFP, the session was expected to feature three hours of statements from various delegations before a two-hour closed discussion and a dinner.
Invitations were sent to around 40 countries, Russia not among them, according to diplomats familiar with the preparations.
The SPA report said the meeting would bring together national security advisers and "representatives of a number of countries", without providing details, AFP reports.
China, which says it is a neutral party in the conflict but has been criticised by Western countries for refusing to condemn Russia, announced on Friday it would send its special representative for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui.
"China is willing to work with the international community to continue to play a constructive role in promoting a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis," said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
India has also confirmed its attendance in Jeddah, describing the move as in line "with our longstanding position" that "dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward".
South Africa said it too will take part.
France said its delegation was being headed by Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic adviser to President Emmanuel Macron.
Representatives of Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico, Chile, Zambia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Poland, and the European Union will also come to Jeddah.
The US president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is also expected to attend.
What’s the background?
Saturday's meeting follows Ukraine-organised talks in Copenhagen in June that were designed to be informal and did not yield an official statement.
Instead, diplomats said the sessions were intended to engage a range of countries in debates about a path towards peace, notably members of the BRICS bloc with Russia that have adopted a more neutral stance on the war in contrast to Western powers.
What’s Ukraine’s stance?
Speaking on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the wide range of countries represented in the Jeddah talks, including developing countries which have been hit hard by the surge in food prices triggered by the war.
"This is very important, because on issues such as food security, the fate of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world directly depends on how fast the world moves to implement the peace formula," he said.
In Saudi Arabia, in fact, the foundations of a new global political architecture are being laid. This architecture will no longer have the "aggressive subjectivity of the Russian Federation", which has provoked key instabilities over the past 15-20 years, and a return to stable…— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) August 4, 2023
On Friday, Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine's presidential office, said in an interview: "I predict that the conversation will not be easy, but the truth is on our side.
"We have many disagreements and we have heard many positions, but it is important that we share our principles," added Yermak, who also heads Kyiv's delegation to Jeddah.
"Our task is to unite the whole world around Ukraine."
How does Saudi Arabia fit into the big picture?
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter which works closely with Russia on oil policy, has touted its ties to both sides and positioned itself as a possible mediator in the war.
It has backed UN Security Council resolutions denouncing Russia's invasion as well as its unilateral annexation of territory in eastern Ukraine.
Yet last year, Washington criticised oil production cuts approved in October, saying they amounted to "aligning with Russia" in the war.
This May, the kingdom hosted Zelensky at an Arab summit in Jeddah, where he accused some Arab leaders of turning "a blind eye" to the horrors of Russia's invasion.
In sum, Riyadh has adopted a "classic balancing strategy" that could soften Russia's response to this weekend's summit, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.
What’s in it for Saudi Arabia?
Saudi officials see Saturday's talks as evidence of its diplomatic clout and vindication of its emphasis on diversifying diplomatic partners.
"These talks are a prime example of the success of Saudi Arabia's multipolar strategy of maintaining strong ties to Ukraine, Russia and China," said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government.
"In hosting the summit, Saudi Arabia wants to reinforce its bid to become a global middle power with the ability to mediate conflicts while asking us to forget some of its failed strategies and actions of the past, like its Yemen intervention or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East programme director for the International Crisis Group.
The 2018 slaying of Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, by Saudi agents in Turkey once threatened to isolate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler.
But the energy crisis produced by the Ukraine war elevated Saudi Arabia's global importance, helping to facilitate his rehabilitation.
Moving forward Riyadh "wants to be in the company of an India or a Brazil, because only as a club can these middle powers hope to have impact on the world stage," Hiltermann added.
"Whether they will be able to agree on all things, such as the Ukraine war, is a big question."
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