The summit of the Arab League held in Jeddah on the 19th of May 2023 showcased the pivotal role taken by Saudi Arabia in the Arab affairs. After partially mending ties with its arch-rival Iran, thanks to the prompt mediation of China (that exploited an unmissable opportunity to extend its clout in the Gulf), Riyadh has also been engaged on a broad diplomatic offensive on several fronts to show its rise in prominence.
The Jeddah summit confirmed the extensive outreach of the ambitious Saudi leadership. The surprise appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who called for genuine support for his country to repel the invasion launched by Russia last year, certainly played into the hands of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), particularly keen on mediating between Kiev and Moscow, with which it is coordinating its oil policies in the OPEC+ cartel.
Saudi Arabia’s neutral stance towards the conflict in Ukraine has raised resentments in some Western diplomatic circles but is perfectly in line with the carefully calibrated foreign policy adopted since the rise of MbS. Widely criticised for his crackdown on dissenting voices and activists, which pushed US President Joe Biden to promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state if elected, the Crown Prince is determined to end what he perceives as the kingdom’s subordination to Western interests.
As the Gulf reinvents itself in the aftermath of the perceived US disengagement from the region, Arab leaders seem more eager to take matters into their own hands, devising new frameworks for cooperation. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this means replacing the oil for arms principle that has guided the partnership with Washington since the independence, with a policy that preserves the alliance with the US, while giving ar-Riyadh an equal footing.
The presence in Jeddah of President Bashar al-Assad, previously relegated to pariah as well for his brutal repression of the opposition in the civil war that is still going on in Syria, is a case in point. With the US actively pushing for more Arab states to join the Abraham Accords (with a specific focus on Saudi Arabia that implicitly dismisses Biden’s previous electoral pledge), the parallel normalisation drive between former geopolitical rivals offers Riyadh a more indigenous way to retain some influence in regional affairs, while fending off ambitious competitors at the same time.
Indeed, the opening to Assad must be read in the context of the competitive collaboration between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has been among the first countries to re-establish ties with Damascus and has invited Assad to the next COP28 climate summit in Dubai just before the summit in Jeddah. Assad had also visited the UAE in March, his first visit to an Arab state since the Syrian revolt began in 2011. While both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to reap the dividends of non-alignment, the personal rivalry between MbS and the Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) still looms large, setting a trend that is already reverberating in the region and beyond, including in Sudan.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region