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24 August 2023, Gateway House

Jeddah is the ‘new’ Vienna

In West Asia, nations such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are starting to understand their pivotal geopolitical positioning in world affairs – and are making calibrated and strategic moves to preserve or recover global stability. It’s welcome at a time when more than two dozen conflicts are ongoing, when geopolitical rivals have hardened their positions, and diplomacy has failed to de-escalate in the primary contests.

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A few years ago, the antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the escalations in conflicts in Yemen, Iraq or Syria, and unbreakable ties between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were the international narratives of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Nowadays, the region’s diplomatic recital resonates with a different music – the shift from strategic rivalries and proxy conflicts to a more harmonious regional tactical de-escalation and reformulations of foreign policy to achieve balance. With this new framework in hand, Saudi Arabia hosted a two-day National Security Advisors’ Meeting in Jeddah on August 5, gathering delegations from 42 countries[1] to discuss developments and alternatives to end the war in Ukraine.

The summit in Jeddah was the second of its kind this year after a similar forum was initiated by the Kingdom on June 24-25 in Copenhagen. The neutrality of Saudi Arabia during the conflict was a suitable backdrop to finding common ground from different perspectives with those involved in, or affected by, the ongoing conflict. The talks coincided with the stagnation in the front lines in Eastern Ukraine[2], the rising tensions in food insecurity due to the cancellation of the Black Sea Initiative[3], and other high-impact developments. The lack of communication channels for negotiations, the limited agreements through international forums, and the absence of leadership to conduct a ceasefire or create willingness from both parties to start a peace dialogue, are only a small part of the many relevant elements of the discussions in Jeddah and Copenhagen. Even if Russia did not assist— decreasing the expectations of dialogue— vital information exchanges about global concerns were successfully concluded, and messages reached home.

The Jeddah Summit was not the first introduction of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries as relevant actors in preserving global stability, and it will not be the last. The Joint Trilateral Statement of Saudi Arabia, Iran and China[4] is perhaps the most remarkable diplomatic achievement in the Middle East in recent years. It crafted a route for diplomatic approaches to severe issues in Yemen, Iraq or Lebanon, and also preambled the return of Syria to the Arab League[5].  Saudi Arabia has been pivotal in multiple extra-regional developments.  Like Abu Dhabi, Riyadh has driven successful, limited negotiations in the war in Ukraine to create humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges or liberations, and to enable food exports[6]. Riyadh has used different mediation attempts in a new stage of the conflict in Sudan[7] and hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the Arab League Summit in Jeddah in May[8]. Some diplomats have mentioned that Jeddah is gently evolving into a “new Vienna”.

The economic and political weight of the Kingdom and its connections with both sides of conflicts in Ukraine or any other, allow it to take on some responsibility, in this case, even beyond the Arab world. In addition to the peacemaker playbook, the revenues from investments of the Public Investment Fund (PIF)[9] of the Kingdom, helps gain influence in strategic sectors like the connectivity or port and airport developments. These have connected economies with global markets with multiplier effects across industrial sectors. The Kingdom’s surplus of hydrocarbon exports—Saudi Aramco remains as the world’s largest petroleum producer[10]—has achieved one of the most desired objectives for Gulf countries: a diversification of incomes, the reduction of dependency in critical sectors, and decisive energy global security. In this context, the diplomatic choreography that avoids stepping into the convergence of geopolitical rivalries, is part of a renewed foreign policy doctrine.

The sophisticated diplomatic movements integrate a hazardous but well-planned equilibrium. The refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, to support production cuts inside OPEC to preserve oil prices at higher levels,[11] the reconciliation with Teheran, membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,[12] the move to join the BRICS[13] and the designation of being a permanent Ambassador to Palestine[14] – all are controversial precedents. But they are delicately balanced by a $35 billion Boeing deal,[15] the dialogue with Israel regarding normalization that the Abraham Accords haven’t reached yet, and the humanitarian aid sent to Ukraine[16]. Even though the U.S. is still the leading defence supplier to the Kingdom—and the bilateral relationship also includes pillars regarding regional stability joint efforts, economic collaboration, innovations and clean energy cooperation, among others—the U.K.  and France remain critical defence and financial partners of the Kingdom. The diplomatic component is a vital engine for achieving  “Vision 2030″ because regional stability and partnership with all actors is needed to develop the ambitious impact radius. Diversification is not only about incomes but about long-term foreign policy planning too.

In the realm of diplomacy, the balance of power is usually a misunderstood concept, lost between narratives and historical recalls. Sometimes it feels as if it belongs to the era of Westphalian enlightenment or the epilogue of the Congress of Vienna, with the effect of disengaging potential conflicts and creating alliances systems, or, in the last decades, linked with narratives of influence or interventions.

But it is difficult to fit into a multipolar world order that awaits, expectantly, for the balance that lies beyond. It is part of the restructuring of different regions, emergent economies and political powers willing to build a new composition of independent agendas and geopolitical identities. The world’s current acciaccato  calls for the recalibration of foreign policies and hedging positions among rivalries, to protect interests and warrant security. The newborn pacemakers’ roles as revealed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Türkiye, are reflections of these structural changes.

The desert is now a place for reconciliation.[17] Confrontation is understood to be harmful, costly and ineffective. Rigid policies towards Syria or Lebanon, direct intervention in Yemen or a blockade of Qatar did not show significant gains but tarnished the reputation of the Kingdom. Some outcomes can be reversed and some may be forgotten. But those from the new diplomacy now practiced, might remain.

Mauricio D. Aceves is Author in Foreign Affairs Latin America on contemporary Middle East and Central Asia issues. 

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[1] Arab News, “Saudi Arabia to host Ukrainian crisis summit on Saturday in Jeddah”, Arab News. August 04, 2023.

[2] Institute for the Study of War, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 14, 2023”, Institute for the Study of War, Press ISW. August 14, 2023.

[3] United Nations, UN News, “UN chief regrets Russia’s decision to withdraw from grain deal”, UN News, July 17, 2023.,need%20everywhere%2C%E2%80%9D%20said%20Mr.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People´s Republic of China, “Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People´s Republic of China. March 10, 2023.

[5] Summer Said, “Syria Readmitted to Arab League, Bringing Assad Back Into the Fold”, The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2023.

[6] Bennett Nehoff, “Saudi Prisoner Diplomacy During the Ukraine War”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. December 20, 2022.

[7] AlJazeera, “Sudan army returns for talks in Jeddah as war enters fourth month”, AlJazeera. July 15, 2023.

[8] Middle East Eye (MEE), “Zelensky arrives in Saudi Arabia to attend Arab League summit”, MEE. May 19, 2023.

[9] Public Investment Fund “Shaping the Future, Annual Report 2022”, Public Investment Fund. August 2023.

[10] Amna Puri-Mirza, “Production of crude oil by Saudi Aramco 2018-2022”, Statista. June 29, 2023.

[11] Maha El Dahan and Jana Choukeir, “Saudi Arabia, Russia deepen oil cuts, sending prices higher”, Reuters. July 3, 2023.,and%20extended%20to%20December%202024.

[12] Mohammed Al-Sulami, “Saudi Arabia’s nod to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”, Arab News. April 10, 2023.

[13] Economist Intelligence, “Saudi Arabia inches closer to BRICS membership”, Economist Intelligence. June 12, 2023.

[14] The New York Times, “Riyadh Appoints Envoy to Palestinians Amid Push for Saudi-Israeli Ties”, The New York Times. August 14, 2023.

[15]Al Root, “Boeing Close to Being Named Supplier For a New Saudi Arabian Airline”, Barron’s a Dow Jones Company. March 12, 2023.

[16] The Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, “In Presence of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Head of President of Ukraine’s Office, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine Sign Agreement and MoU Worth $400 Million”, The Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington. February 26, 2023.

[17] Mauricio D. Aceves, “Las puertas del desierto: prospectiva de los países del golfo Pérsico”, Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, Dicember 27, 2021.

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