The Russia-Ukraine Jeddah Meeting: A Win for MBS in a Changing Global Order

Over the first weekend of August 2023, Saudi Arabia convened an international summit on the war in Ukraine. Held in Jeddah and attended by representatives from 40 countries, the meeting signaled that Riyadh has abandoned its largely hands-off approach to the conflict in favor of a policy that, in the words of the Saudi Press Agency, seeks “to contribute to reaching a solution that will result in permanent peace.” Underscoring this message, the agency released a striking picture; at the center sits Saudi National Security Advisor Musaed bin Mohammed al-Aiban, with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to his left and Chinese Special Representative on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui to his right. Saudi Arabia, it would seem, now seeks to be in the driver’s seat. Its goal is not merely to act as a peacemaker in Ukraine; it is also offering a diplomatic bridge between China and the United States.

As was widely expected, the meeting did not produce any breakthroughs. Still, it provided an unprecedented opportunity for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) to position himself as a leader of what might be called a second “Non-Aligned Movement.” This movement’s growing influence owes much to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For while Moscow’s assault had the unintended effect of revitalizing—and expanding—NATO, it also created an opening for many countries to leverage a multipolar international system in ways that have limited Washington’s global power, not to mention its regional clout in the Middle East. At the same time, these “balancing” efforts come with a high cost, as rising grain prices have threatened the stability of many of the very states that have thus far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion, much less support Ukraine. For these states, the status quo is increasingly dangerous, hence the wider logic of inviting China and the United States to sit a few short whispers away from their Saudi hosts at a meeting to which Russia was not invited.

It is too early to say whether the summit has reshuffled the deck in ways that might eventually advance a negotiated solution to the Ukraine conflict. Much will depend on two things: the course of the war itself, and the readiness of China to distance itself from Moscow. The Jeddah meeting provided a low-cost opportunity to test Beijing while giving MBS a significant boost. But the overall picture remains murky.

China’s Dualist Foreign Policy

From the outset, China has tried to advance a position of “neutrality” while echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Beyond rhetoric, Beijing has provided economic support via its purchase of price-discounted Russian oil and, some experts argue, limited military assistance as well (a claim Beijing denies). China’s efforts to maintain these two tracks reflect structural tensions that run through the heart of China’s global engagement. On the one hand, China is closely tied to and heavily invested in a global economic order that is dominated by western states and multilateral institutions. Its Belt and Road Initiative projects its economic influence worldwide, but has created multiple dependencies that go in both directions. On the other hand, China’s president Xi Jinping is seeking to counter US military, economic, and even cultural power, and has done so in multiple ways, thus inviting conflict with the United States even as Beijing needs to cooperate with Washington and its allies in the West. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which reportedly took Chinese leaders by surprise, created opportunities for China to flex its “counterhegemonic” muscles, but also opened the door to economic, social, and strategic threats that were likely to intensify absent a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created opportunities for China to flex its “counterhegemonic” muscles.

The tension between China’s ideological and economic interests extends well beyond the China-West arena. Many middle-sized regional powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa share Beijing’s desire to counter US global dominance. But their policies are also rooted in the principle of state sovereignty and the rejection of the use of force to solve international conflicts. Beijing has long advocated these very norms and has given them pride of place in the charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, not to mention China’s 12-point Ukraine peace proposal. But its support for Russia has raised legitimate questions from many leaders about the rising humanitarian and economic costs of the war and Beijing’s readiness to take credible steps to show that its Ukraine plan is not a mere diplomatic feint. The most important of these steps would be for Beijing to reduce its diplomatic support for Moscow.

Understandably, China has resisted such a risky step. Indeed, some three months before the Jeddah conference, Beijing refused to attend a meeting in Copenhagen during which Ukraine  advanced its own peace proposals. But the Copenhagen meeting was held on June 24, the same day as a revolt by the Wagner mercenary forces that at first seemed to pose a dire threat to Putin. These dramatic events surely played some role in Beijing’s decision to engage the US and many other countries at Jeddah without the presence of Russia.

Beijing’s Jeddah Dance

From the outset of the Jeddah meeting China’s delegate avoided suggesting that his country would endorse any particular proposal other than its own. Indeed, Special Representative Li Hui seemed to emphasize the limited goals of the meeting—and the conflicts animating its leading participants—when he declared, “We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles be shared.” Putting a more positive spin, a spokesperson for the Chinese government noted that, “China is willing to work with the international community to continue to play a constructive role in promoting a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.”

But what kind of solution? The outcome that China has outlined in its own 12-point proposal calls for respecting “the independence and territorial integrity of all countries” but also for a negotiated “political settlement” that could very well fudge or violate these principles. Thus, China is not ready to accept Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan, which would require Russia’s total withdrawal from all Ukrainian lands, including Crimea. That Moscow has totally rejected this idea is not surprising; any hint by Putin that he might accept Ukraine’s terms would likely lead to his overthrow. Moreover, as one expert has noted, “Ukraine’s best-case scenario for the end of this war is also China’s worst-case scenario,” because Beijing wants Putin to remain in power while sustaining Russia’s occupation until it is Ukraine that makes the key compromises.

The conference underscored Saudi Arabia’s growing clout as a “neutral” mediator in a diverse group of states that constitute a second Non-Aligned Movement.

It is inconceivable that China’s envoy came to the Jeddah meeting believing that these various circles could be squared. Still, with the Ukraine conflict settling into what could be a prolonged war of attrition, and with Russia’s suspension of its grain deal and its attacks on shipping in the Black Sea, China had to show up and demonstrate concern for those states suffering from Moscow’s policy of global blackmail. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy anticipated—and exploited—China’s unease when he noted that, “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 was, of course, talking about Ukraine’s own proposal, which China certainly did not back. Still, China’s active presence in Jeddah presumably showed that it was ready to take on its responsibilities as a major global power that, in the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, had helped “to consolidate international consensus” on Ukraine.

Whatever the veracity of this claim, it is worth noting that on the second day of the Jeddah conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted that the meeting was “a reflection of the West’s attempt to continue futile, doomed efforts,” but added that China could nevertheless “convey common sense to the western patrons of Kyiv.” China did its best to avoid taking on the role of Moscow’s messenger. Still, days after the Jeddah summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, reassured him that Beijing was committed to being an “objective and rational voice.” That the week before the summit China had joined Russia in a naval exercise off the coast of Alaska that prompted the deployment of four US Navy destroyers underscored the risky juggling act that is at the heart of Beijing’s foreign policy.

A Win for MBS and Zelenskyy

The key participants in the Jeddah conference, not least of which was Ukraine, made good use of the multiple balls that Beijing has thus far kept in the air. Ukrainian officials declared that the meeting “completely destroys the narrative of Russia” that Ukraine was only backed by “countries of the collective West.” Such exaggerations were as necessary as they were predictable. Indeed, while in the lead up to the meeting Ukrainian officials insisted that “our goal in Saudi Arabia is to develop a unified vision” ahead of a future global peace summit, the fact that no such vision emerged in Jeddah was almost irrelevant. What counted was that the summit was held and that it ended, as the Ukrainian ambassador to Saudi Arabia pitched it, with “constructive” talks and “a broad vision.” Jeddah was thus a win for Zelenskyy.

The same, of course, can be said for MBS. He may have not fully agreed when the Ukrainian ambassador thanked Saudi Arabia “for being so committed and hospitable to Ukraine in moving forward our peace formula plan.” But the meeting signaled that the crown prince may be well on his way to rehabilitating his international reputation.

More broadly, as one leading Saudi journalist noted, the conference underscored Saudi Arabia’s growing clout as a “neutral” mediator in a diverse group of states that constitute a kind of second Non-Aligned Movement, one whose members are clearly determined to leverage the US-Russia-China triangle of conflict to advance their own interests while maintaining good relations with all three countries. For Riyadh, a key element in this particular juggling act is its unhappiness with being replaced by Russia as China’s chief supplier of crude oil. This represents a real economic and political cost for MBS, who to the frustration of the Biden White House, has sustained the oil production cuts he initiated in Spring 2023. In short, the Jeddah meeting gave Riyadh a practically risk-free opportunity to direct multiple signals in multiple directions. Thus, while the conference ended without any final declaration, Saudi officials were content to have hosted a global meeting that contributed to “building common grounds that pave the way for peace.” As for China, it has signaled its readiness to attend a follow-up meeting.

The Biden Administration Navigates Choppy Waters

One indicator of the transforming global landscape is that following the June Copenhagen meeting, to which China was not invited, western officials reportedly argued that given the close ties between Beijing and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was well placed to host a second meeting that would include China. That National Security Advisor Sullivan sat just to the left of his Saudi hosts—and that in the words of one unnamed US official, the administration was “glad” that China attended and participated in the meeting “in a constructive way”—highlights the complex challenges that the administration faces as it navigates shifting, if not choppy diplomatic waters.

The prospect of a widened BRICS club worries the Biden administration.

Those waters could get a little rougher as the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—hold a summit this week during which they will debate admitting new members. China and Russia both support extending invitations, while a host of countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have expressed interest in joining. As the meeting gets underway, it is worth noting that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov stated some days ago that Moscow is looking forward to “an exchange of views” with the BRICS states that attended the Jeddah meeting. While they will surely comply, all of Russia’s BRICS counterparts will undoubtedly take note that Putin could not attend the BRICS meeting in person because he has been accused of international war crimes.

The prospect of a widened BRICS club worries the Biden administration. After all, it rightly sees such a move as a crucial part of China’s bid to extend its global clout. Still, China’s growing economic problems, combined with recent White House efforts to foster greater military cooperation between Japan and South Korea, might also encourage many states to tread carefully. This is a point recently made by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who warned that, “We have resisted pressure to align ourselves with any one of the global powers or with influential blocs of nations.” Such sentiments might give the White House an opening to sustain a flexible diplomacy that would build on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent efforts to reengage Beijing. The task for the administration is to find creative ways to speak to—and even leverage—the tensions and dilemmas that China faces as it struggles to define its place in the world.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: SPA