By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
In one of his definitions of what a “Good Country” is, Professor Simon Anholt — the British academic who coined the term “Nation Brand” in the late 1990s — says it is a country that people, halfway across the world, wake up feeling grateful it exists.
Just imagine how we would all wake up feeling if the Saudi efforts, embodied in the recently concluded Jeddah peace talks on Ukraine, translated into a solid peace proposal and a starting point to end the conflict that started in February 2022.
For context, the war in Ukraine has impacted everyone and everything, from lives lost to energy bills soaring, from food shortages to the threat of a nuclear disaster looming over us. According to the UN, “the war has contributed to volatile and elevated commodity and energy prices, which exacerbated food shortages and stoked inflation in many regions across the world. Although energy and grain prices subsided from their mid-2022 peaks, the risks of their resurgence remain, and Europe may still face challenges to its energy security.”
For more than 18 months now, we have heard nothing but angry rhetoric from all sides, which has not helped reduce tensions and has only inflamed them further. Yes, Russia should not be rewarded for its aggression, but it became very clear from early on that a military solution is not what was going to solve this conflict. Yet everyone involved is too proud or has too much invested to admit the obvious. This is true even despite US foreign policy mastermind Henry Kissinger long advising the West to talk to Russia. “The time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation,” he wrote in December.
The solution cannot be the not-so-diplomatic one top Russian diplomat Andrey Baklanov suggested to Arab News last week — that the Ukrainian government must be annihilated. “I think that there is no opportunity for any kind of truce between the present-day government — the so-called government, these fascist people in Kyiv — and us,” he told “Frankly Speaking.” “I’m absolutely sure that the only option we have is to, well, to annihilate this regime in Ukraine and to return Ukraine to normality.
It can also not be the refusal of the current Ukrainian government to talk to their Russian counterpart as long as President Vladimir Putin stays in power. It is evident he is not going anywhere. Not to mention that, as long there is no clear cut winner, Moscow has demonstrated it can inflict sustained, intolerable pain on its Western foes — while being in a unique situation of having nothing more to lose itself.
This is why the Ukraine talks in Jeddah were about much more than just finding a peace proposal. In my opinion, they represented the triumph of the wise, patient and pragmatic views of the new Saudi Arabia over the populist, sometimes irrational and ideological decision-making that — unfortunately — plagues most Western democracies today.
At the start of the conflict, Saudi Arabia was accused of siding with Russia, despite the fact that it voted against the aggression against Ukraine at the UN. The Kingdom supported the General Assembly resolution of March 2, 2022, that demanded Russia immediately end its invasion and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces.
By meeting with the foreign ministers of both countries, the Kingdom sent a clear message that it wants to use its unique position, influence and power to mediate. Then, and despite oil prices going down following US President Joe Biden’s visit last summer, Saudi Arabia was accused of supporting Russia through OPEC+, when the reality was that it was this same deal that allowed stability in energy markets and trust to be built with Moscow and provided some sort of leverage to be used when needed.
A case in point was last year’s Saudi-brokered prisoner swap that resulted in the release of citizens of the US, UK, Sweden and other countries. While the current administration in the US continues to play politics and accuses Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia, President Volodymyr Zelensky himself thanked the Kingdom for its efforts and support for Ukraine, which includes more than $400 million in aid.
Now, a new opportunity emerges after the conclusion of the Jeddah talks. People might ask, why will these talks be so different from their predecessor in Copenhagen? Well, there are crystal clear differences: First, unlike Denmark, Saudi Arabia has not taken sides in this war and, as such, is considered a much fairer mediator. Second, as previously indicated, the Kingdom has the ear of Moscow and has leverage through the mutual benefits. Third, Saudi Arabia has the added benefit of being able to talk to all parties, including the Chinese, who did not attend the Danish talks.
Will this bear fruit? Well, it pretty much depends on the Russian response. Moscow was not represented in Jeddah, but Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Sunday confirmed that Moscow will discuss the results of the summit with its BRICS partners that took part in the meeting. My assumption is that the outcomes of the recently concluded meeting will serve as a starting point for a discussion, not an end. However, if it means we move the goalposts from potential annihilation to a possible discussion, that is already a huge win for humanity.
So, why does Saudi Arabia go through this effort? Well, look at it this way: If the reforms and ambitions introduced by Vision 2030 injected the Kingdom with newly found superpowers, then the philosophy has to be — to quote the late comic book genius Stan Lee — that with great power comes great responsibility.
We saw this in action when Saudi Arabia helped evacuate citizens of other countries from Sudan, along with its own. And this is why it is adamant about resolving Sudan, Yemen, introducing green initiatives and finding a just solution for the Palestinians.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor-in-chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas