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  • Writer's pictureRobin Moore

Saudi Arabia’s Re-positioning in International Affairs – The Jeddah Peace Conference

Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic prowess was on full display as it hosted a major international peace conference on the Russia-Ukraine war at its Red Sea port in Jeddah. While inviting the primary Western powers and close Ukraine allies - such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union - Riyadh was also able to gather a group of countries that have not yet taken a clear stance regarding Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. On the one hand, major powers from the influential BRICS bloc, such as Brazil, China, and South Africa, were present, with Russia’s notable absence (not invited). On the other hand, the Jeddah talks engaged several players from the Global South. Compared to the last round of “peace talks” in Copenhagen a couple of months before, this round provided a better framework for building a genuinely global, heavyweight coalition to support Ukraine. For Saudi Arabia, despite the summit not leading to any tangible successes and being considered a failure, it represents a success simply because the Kingdom was able to organize it, and countries accepted the invitation. This shows that Saudi Arabia is no longer hiding in the shadows of the United States but is striving for a new role in international affairs. The world’s biggest crude exporter, whose economic interests are entangled with those of Moscow, has touted its ties to both sides and positioned itself as a possible mediator in the war. After the United States has increasingly retreated from the region in recent years, Saudi Arabia seeks to expand its international presence to maintain its regional and global power. In this article, I will contextualize Saudi Arabia’s re-positioning in international affairs in the last decade by analyzing the international implications of the Jeddah Peace Conference.

The Saoud dynasty’s change of guard

To contextualize Saudi Arabia’s recent re-positioning in international affairs, a little historical digression is necessary. Toward the end of the Second World War, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz agreed to the famous “Quincy Pact”. The pact constituted a secret agreement in which the US would provide Saudi Arabia with military aid and support in exchange for secure access to the Kingdom’s oil supplies. For roughly seven decades, this doctrine – reaffirmed by consecutive US presidents – heavily impacted Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations and implicated the US in practically any step of its international decision-making along the way.

In 2015, then Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was appointed Minister of Defence. Two years later, he was appointed Crown Prince by his father, King Salman. MBS has continued to climb the ladder in the Saudi political hierarchy, becoming all but King of Saudi Arabia. The arrival to power of MBS led the traditional pact between the US and the Kingdom to start to show fractures, and Saudi Arabia’s position in international affairs started to evolve. The young Crown Prince almost immediately broke protocol by publicly criticizing American foreign policy and, with that, broke decades worth of established customs. While presenting as atypical behaviour for a Saudi leader, this did not constitute a rupture of the traditional alliance. However, it was clear that MBS would be different from previous Saudi rulers and marked the beginning of a new era in Saudi politics. He was responsible for implementing a whole plethora of liberalizing rules, initially on the domestic level, such as allowing women to drive or establishing a national entertainment authority, to name just a couple. However, what truly tipped the scale was the announcement in 2016 of the Saudi Vision 2030. While many visible elements of the Vision 2030 are hypermodern infrastructure projects such as “the Line” (a 170 km linear city in the Saudi desert), there is more to it than meets the eye. The Saudi government launched this program to diversify Saudi Arabia economically, socially, and culturally, ultimately aiming to transform it away from its traditionally conservative and oil-dependent society. The desire to shift away from the oil dependency profoundly impacted the relationship with the US and together with the more general changes announced before, led to its re-positioning in international relations.

Deterioration of a Historic Alliance

A better understanding of the changes in the Saudi-American relationship is instrumental to explaining the subsequent international re-positioning. In this regard and for contextualizing the implications of the Jeddah Peace Conference, the Saudi Vision 2030 plays a key role. Riyadh came to terms with its heavy dependence on crude oil. While it helped them to amass wealth rarely seen anywhere else, it also made them heavily dependent on outside actors, above all the US. As oil is primarily traded in US dollars, Saudi Arabia, up until recently, needed to sell its oil in US dollars to earn revenue. This makes Saudi Arabia highly dependent on the US dollar and the US financial system, to name just one example of this dependency.

Despite Saudi Arabia still being the largest net exporter of oil in the world, the US has, over time, reevaluated its traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia and realized that this alliance might not be as advantageous as it used to be. Actions such as MBS’ ordering of the execution in 2018 of Washington Post journalist Jammal Khashoggi or the more recent defiance to comply with Western-imposed sanctions against Russia to isolate the latter have severely strained the relationship between the two countries.

This trend of worsening relations could already be observed towards the end of the second Obama term, during which he pushed to re-position international efforts towards the Pacific. With Republican President Donald Trump taking power in early 2017, it hit a momentary pause, as Trump felt Saudi Arabia could play a key role in what became known as the Abraham Accords and the administration’s general strategy in the Middle East. However, the 2020 election period brought another Democratic President to the White House with a famously public disdain for MBS. During the election campaign, Joe Biden affirmed that he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah state if he took office. And whilst Biden did not completely cut ties to the oil-rich regime, he definitely gave MBS the cold shoulder, which did not go unnoticed in Riyadh. The Saudi Kingdom became increasingly aware of the untrustworthiness of its historical ally, which forced it to rethink its approach to international relations. Furthermore, taking into account its need to diversify in order to be able to compete with other rising powers in the region, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia began to strive for a more diversified presence on the international stage.

Saudi Arabia, the Global South, and the Jeddah Peace Conference

However, Saudi Arabia soon came to terms with the fact that countries from the Global North increasingly push for the respect of human rights and the general respect of Western democratic norms. Furthermore, these industrialized countries seek to decarbonize their economies, and as Saudi Arabia still needs the oil revenue to diversify its economy, something has to change. Whilst those Western countries do not always live up to these values, the push towards them makes the relationship between the Kingdom and the Global North increasingly risky from an economic point of view. Therefore, diversification of allies would most likely not be able to occur in the Global North, and new partners would have to be searched for elsewhere.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia turned its attention and diversification attempts to the Global South. Many of those countries shared their apparent adversity to the US and European countries and felt that with the Saudi regime coming to terms with the futility of their relationship with the US in particular, they have potentially gained a powerful ally. This appears to be accurate as the oil-rich country was able and willing to offer those countries resources that European and North American countries were not willing to provide. This allowed some historically unstable countries, like Guinea, to develop specific sectors and attract desperately needed funds. In this specific case, the Saudis invested $8 million for a water project in the country which will provide water delivery projects, such as water tanks, to alleviate drought in rural areas. With the help of such investments, Saudi Arabia is able to gain partners on the international stage and expand its profile diplomatically. These newly gained “friends” from around the globe proved particularly useful when it came to the organization of the Peace Conference in Jeddah. Whilst this peace conference is not what its name would intuitively indicate, it actually served primarily, as I pointed out above, to promote a global coalition in favour of Ukraine. Ukraine was seeking to benefit from Saudi Arabia’s global reach and present its case to countries that have stayed neutral up until now and were not willing to join their call to boycott Russia.

Most of those countries hold this position, as it is seen as another proxy war that the Americans and the Europeans were fighting against Russia in order to manifest themselves on the global stage to the detriment of an emerging country. Many of those who have stayed out of the conflict have also done so because they have gotten increasingly annoyed with American and European pressure to position themselves on international conflicts that do not directly concern them. Furthermore, many see American and European outrage against the Russian war of aggression as hypocritical as they consider many of their past foreign interventions as similarly wrong and poorly reasoned. This narrative is not only put forward by smaller countries but also by a major power that was present for the first time at an international gathering concerning the Russia-Ukraine war: China.

Saudi Arabia’s new major ally?

Just as most of the Global South, China has long refrained from taking a clear stance in this European conflict for many of the reasons mentioned above. Furthermore, China enjoys rather close ties with Russia (beneficiary of Russian fossil fuels) and does not appear to struggle with many of its repeated violations of international norms. Unlike the previous Peace Summit hosted by Denmark, China decided to join this edition of peace talks. Whilst Beijing has not clearly expressed the reason for their abstention, there are a couple of possible reasons why they did not attend previously.

As a NATO member, Denmark could not portray the same neutral image that Saudi Arabia could, as Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s relationship is considerably more in line with China’s than any European country. Furthermore, China has publicly defended the position that a quick and peaceful solution should be found to the Russia-Ukraine war and has, for that, brought forward a concrete peace proposal. Additionally, China and Saudi Arabia have experienced an intensification of relations as of recently. In April 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia officially met for the first time in Beijing since the rupture of its relations seven years ago. China was able to close a deal between the two countries, which led to the re-establishing of official ties building on Iraq’s intensive attempt to broker a peace deal between the two regional powers in the last couple of years. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mediation of a surprise deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March shows Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East. The deal, which ended years of hostility between the two countries, was a major coup for China and shook up the dynamics of a conflict-ridden region where the United States has traditionally been the primary mediator. Whilst the US was not involved in the deal with Iran and Saudi Arabia, recent meetings on a possible peace deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel have shown that the US has not entirely retreated from the region. Despite the apparent loss of dominance in the region, the US positively reacted to China’s presence at the Jeddah Peace Conference and saw it as an opportunity to get them on board on the question of the sanctions and the isolation of Russia. It needs to be stressed, however, that China has agreed to nothing of that sort and, following the Conference, reasserted its neutral stance.

The Jeddah Peace Conference and Saudi Arabia’s International Diversification

Saudi Arabia went from being a mostly passive observer of international relations for roughly seven decades to being an active participant in an attempt to diversify both its economy and diplomatic profile. Realizing that the partnership with its traditional ally – the United States of America – was no longer an overall benefit for the Saudi Kingdom, their diversification included many countries from the Global South to the detriment of the Global North. With that, Saudi Arabia joined a long list of countries seeking to decouple their relations from the US and Western European powers that have been dominating forces on the international stage for the last couple of decades.

Another example is Saudi Arabia being invited into the expansion of the BRICS group by the beginning of 2024, along with five other emerging countries: Argentina, the UAE, Ethiopia, Iran, and Egypt. With that, Riyadh is being recognized for its impressive economic growth and increasingly crucial global positioning. However, Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the MENA region to be invited to the BRICS+ group. It appears that the US’ withdrawal from the region has opened up space for other major internal powers to include these countries in their sphere of influence. It will be interesting to see how these recent developments affect the global order.

The Jeddah Peace Conference illustrated that Saudi Arabia could play host to a vast number of countries that were not willing to engage in the Russia-Ukraine war for a long time. The Saudis made use of their increasingly international presence and showed that they are a force to be reckoned with and no longer only follow the directions set by the US but are willing to act independently on the global stage. Therefore, despite this summit being considered a failure it was an apparent success diplomatically for Saudi Arabia. However, in the upcoming months and years, it remains to be seen if the Kingdom can shift away from being a platform provider to one that actually shapes the talks and steps in for international norms. How these norms are interpreted and promoted by the Saudis is another variable that most likely differs from Western interpretations, such as questions related to respecting human rights or the use of force. Only time will tell if Saudi Arabia can materialize this newly found global engagement into being a genuine force for international peace and what their vision of peace looks like.

Robin Moore studied International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies in Geneva and Jerusalem. His current research focuses on global security, peacebuilding, and Swiss foreign affairs. Robin is currently working for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. He is blogging from Montevideo, Uruguay.

Sources cited:

Long, D. E. (2019). The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies. Routledge.

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