Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Jeddah’s Ukrainian Appointment

The participants at the Jeddah meeting on Ukraine were aware that they discussed a crisis that the world hasn’t seen in decades. The crisis has embroiled Europe and another major power. The West has gone to great lengths to prevent Russia from claiming victory. Both sides of the conflict don’t have the ability to advance or retreat. The political, economic and military consequences of the ongoing conflict are massive and have crippled the United Nations’ ability to remind others of its founding principles.

Saudi Arabia’s ability to sponsor a meeting over such a thorny and complex issue is a testament to its reputation, which it has strongly boosted in recent years. It is a reputation that is built on responsibly approaching regional and international crises. Along with the internal renaissance launched by its Vision 2030, Riyadh has been keen on building a network of international relations that has allowed it to consolidate its presence in economic and political world affairs.

A review of the series of summits hosted by Saudi Arabia in recent years and the series of visits carried out by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to various influential and rising capitals demonstrate that it is not unusual for Jeddah to host talks on Ukraine. Saudi Arabia has forged new relations and still pays attention to its old ones. It has adopted an approach of extending its hand towards countries near and far.

Fundamental interests overcame the strain in the relations with the United States. With Russia, it established close ties that go beyond their seats at the OPEC+ group. With China, it formed actual strategic relations that prompted Beijing to host the Saudi-Iranian dialogue that concluded with the famed trilateral statement. Moreover, Saudi Arabia welcomed the Ukrainian president during the latest Arab League summit that was hosted by the Kingdom and later strengthened its ties with India, Brazil, Türkiye and South Africa.

This arsenal of international, honest and trustworthy relations has granted the Saudi player the ability to handle difficult files, most notably the Russian-Ukrainian war.

It was evident that the participants at the Jeddah talks did not all share the same position on the conflict. China’s calculations are very complex. Russia’s defeat in the war would dent its hopes in reclaiming Taiwan, while openly siding with President Vladimir Putin would lead to a major boycott by the West that could threaten the global economy and even the Chinese economy itself.

India also has complicated calculations, so it has preferred to walk the neutral ground, avoiding tilting the balance towards its old relations with Russia. It is warily monitoring China’s growing arsenal and is seeking to reap the rewards of western fears as the “Chinese age” looms large.

Other attendees at the Jeddah talks included European countries that have taken a decisive stand against the “Russian aggression” and countries from other continents that have opted against taking a stand, but have instead called for peace.

The Jeddah meeting was held amid growing concerns that the conflict would enter a more dangerous phase. Ukrainian drones have deprived Putin of keeping Moscow and Russian territories safe. Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy's drones have repeatedly flown over Moscow, home to the Kremlin and Putin himself.

The eruption of the “grain war” has been felt by the poor in countries across the globe. Putin’s presents to some African countries do not solve the problem. The “grain war” led to the “ports war” and the Black Sea seems to be a trap set up for the entire world.

It is an unprecedented global crisis. Putin is too deep in the war to retreat without any gains that would help him declare victory that would make up for the loss of thousands of soldiers and the harm to the economy, not to mention the hit to his image. If this is how the Russian army fought against the Ukrainian military, then what would happen if it were to take on the whole of NATO?

Putin’s inability to simply go back from the war is a problem that needs a solution. He is incapable of deciding the battle in his favor. He is incapable of imposing a ceasefire according to the current situation. The Russian army needs to repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has forced it to plant a massive number of landmines and reminded the people of the horrors of World War II.

The Jeddah meeting concluded on August 6, which coincidentally is the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, another unprecedented development and frightening event that has left its mark on the world. The occasion is often used as a reminder of a hard lesson the world should have learned. The anniversary is more pertinent with the Ukrainian war. Statements by Russian officials about the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of the world slipping into such a situation have awoken several of these fears. The statements by the UN Secretary-General that the “drums of nuclear war are beating once again” have given credence to these fears.

Saudi Arabia sought to host the Jeddah meeting amid the growing global concern that the Russian-Ukrainian war is open to the greatest of dangers. The credibility of the Kingdom’s foreign policy led to more countries joining the talks, doubling the number that had taken part in the Copenhagen meeting that had the same purpose.

The conflict cannot be resolved with a magical statement. It is a dangerous and complex conflict that is not only tied to the future of Ukraine, but to Russia’s position in the world that is being formed on the rubble of the unipolar world. Russia may have been absent from the Jeddah meeting, but it was closely following it.

There is an international will to truly seek out an end to the war. The size of human losses on both sides of the conflict, the damage to the global economy, suffering from the “grain war”, fears that the war may expand and the rising nuclear threat are all pressing factors that should prompt finding a solution to the Ukrainian calamity. The Jeddah meeting was a step forward in reaching a collective will to resolve the conflict in spite of the diverging views. Perhaps the world can even bank on the weariness of the fighters and their despair in ever claiming victory.