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Saudi Arabia hosts Ukraine meeting as U.S. advances Saudi-Israel normalization roadmap
Ukraine meeting in Jeddah comes as some U.S. officials came away more optimistic from a meeting last week between Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince MBS on a framework for Israel Saudi normalization
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is leading the American delegation to a Saudi Arabian-hosted meeting on the Ukraine crisis in Jeddah this weekend involving some 40 nations. China’s special envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui will also attend the Jeddah meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry said.
“China is willing to work with the international community to continue to play a constructive role in promoting a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a statement today (Aug. 4).
The Ukraine meeting in Jeddah comes as some U.S. officials came away more optimistic from a meeting last week (July 27) between Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on a possible framework for Israel-Saudi normalization, U.S. and Saudi sources said. But, U.S. sources cautioned, this is a complex process with a lot of moving parts, and they still have a way to go. In addition, US President Joe Biden is still not thought to have decided if he thinks the initiative is viable.
Some White House officials believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “has made a strategic decision to go for Israel normalization while Biden is in office, mainly because he understands that he only gets what he wants with a Democratic president,” a Saudi expert source, speaking not for attribution, said in an interview Friday (Aug.4). “U.S. officials say now that he’s bought into it. The goal is to try to get a deal done by the first quarter of 2024.”
But the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, who met with Biden at the White House July 18 to discuss Israel/Middle East issues, said it was impression, and he was told by White House officials, that Biden had not yet decided if he is prepared to accept the terms of a prospective normalization deal or is prepared to pursue it.
“My sense is that Biden is not [yet sold on this],” Friedman said in a virtual forum hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington’s Hussein Ibish on Thursday (Aug. 3). “He sent Jake [Sullivan] there not to negotiate the deal, but to explore what the contours of a deal might be, after which he’ll sit back and decide whether he wants to proceed with this.”
“The administration really has yet to make that case, because I don’t think they’ve tied down the terms at all,” Friedman said. “I think they’re all still TBD. … I’ve got to wait and see…and I think it’ll be a hard sell.”
Jeddah meeting on Ukraine builds goodwill
In consultation with Ukraine, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting a meeting for national security advisors and representatives of countries on the Ukrainian crisis in Jeddah on Saturday. Many of the 40 nations attending represent the so-called Global South and non-aligned countries that have taken a more neutral stance on Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been trying to reach out to.
The first such meeting was held in Copenhagen in June.
China did not send an envoy to the Copenhagen meeting. Its decision to send an envoy to the Jeddah meeting this weekend could reflect some Chinese unhappiness with Russia’s decision to not renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative last month.
“Given that they didn't come to the Copenhagen Ukraine meeting, their willingness to send a rep to the Saudi one may be a small sign of change,” former US government Asia hand Robert Manning, now with the Stimson Center, said by email. “Their confidence in Putin was shaken by the Wagner mutiny and sparked some concern about Putin's longevity. Putin's recent ripping up the grain agreement that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan put together should have been an opportunity for China to lean on Moscow -- they import much of that grain, and would gain in the Global South if they were seen to revive it. Yet they have done just about nothing.”
“Hosting this meeting marks a continuation of the humanitarian initiatives and efforts …expressing the Kingdom’s readiness to exert its good offices to contribute to reaching a solution that will result in permanent peace,” the Saudi Press Agency wrote today (Aug. 4).
“Critically, it’s making a point that its policy of maintaining strong relations with Ukraine but also Russia and China has value to its other partners like the US and EU,” Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi told me.
American officials emphasized that Ukraine and Saudi Arabia were taking the lead on the Jeddah conference, and the U.S. was not in the driver’s seat on the meeting.
In addition to Jake Sullivan, acting Deputy Secretary of State Toria Nuland and White House energy advisor Amos Hochstein are also slated to attend the Jeddah meeting on Ukraine. (NSC Middle East coordinator Brett Sullivan is traveling elsewhere, a source said).
“This is the second meeting in a series of conversations that Ukraine is organizing in support of…how we can achieve a just and lasting peace in Ukraine,” an NSC spokesman said.
Building off of their earlier efforts to help facilitate humanitarian prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine, and more recent efforts to try to work for the repatriation of thousands of Ukrainian children taken by Russia, the Saudis are warming up to playing a larger role as a regional power broker and intermediary, said the Arab Gulf State Institute’s Hussein Ibish.
“The Saudis are emerging as a mid-level player, with a very strong regional presence and occasionally a global role,” Ibish said in an interview. “And it is trying to promote itself as a player, a regional player with international clout and significance and enough good ties with various powers, including Ukraine and Russia…that it can be an intermediary. …And this is the payoff: now you can be a broker. You don’t have to be antagonistic to everybody if you build up relations, this is a role you can play.”
“Ukraine has been pushing for a conversation about the… repatriation of at least some of the kidnapped children,” Ibish said. “And Saudi Arabia saw an opportunity here, because there are…issues where Ukraine and Russia can keep a dialogue going. … So the idea is that hostages are another kind of discussion that antagonists can have at a very early stage of the dialogue. Because it’s humanitarian, both sides benefit.”
Russia is reportedly not sending a representative to the Jeddah meeting.
Zelenskyy advisor Mikhailo Podolyak portrayed the gathering as a further sign of international rebuke and the growing international isolation of Russia.
“In Saudi Arabia, in fact, the foundations of a new global political architecture are being laid,” Podolyak tweeted, with evident exaggeration, today. “This architecture will no longer have the ‘aggressive subjectivity of the Russian Federation,’ which has provoked key instabilities over the past 15-20 years.”
Beyond Jeddah, progress seen in US-Saudi talks on normalization framework
While Biden himself is apparently not yet sold on the prospective deal, US and Saudi sources said there had been progress in talks last week between the Sullivan and MBS teams.
The Saudi expert source said Sullivan returned from meeting MBS July 27 last week with a framework of what would be the U.S. elements of such a normalization deal. Those four elements, he said, are: a security guarantee for Saudi Arabia (not a NATO-type Article V treaty pact, he said, but something described as a ‘major non-NATO ally plus plus’ agreement). “It’s like an MNNA plus plus, but no Article V,” the Saudi source said.
The second element is nuclear tech. Third is reliability on U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The fourth element involves China, with the U.S. seeking firewalls between U.S. and China military technology employed by Saudi Arabia.
“What the Saudis want is security assurances in writing,” Ibish said. “Does it have to be NATO-like? Does it have to be that firm? Probably not. But they need it in writing.”
“If it is strong enough that it needs Senate approval….then the way to get it through is to tie it to Israeli normalization,” Ibish continued. “Otherwise, you can’t do it. It all hinges on a triangle…If it’s just bilateral one on one, it doesn’t work.”
Regarding how a possible Saudi-Israel normalization deal would benefit the American people, a second NSC spokesperson said by email: “As part of our regional integration U.S. foreign policy goals, we support normalization efforts with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, which would lead toward a more peaceful, secure, prosperous and stable Middle East region. Regional integration benefits U.S. national security interests, the interests of our regional partners, the people of the United States, and the citizens of the region. Normalization and the details of any agreement reached have to be decided by two sovereign states.”
Saudi analyst Khalid Aljabri, however, critiqued the Biden administration approach to the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, saying he thought that it had inadvertently given MBS more leverage to extract US concessions.
“Biden converted the dynamic from wholesale under Trump to retail,” Aljabri said. “MBS gives these small gestures and gets maximum concessions. MBS knows it’s a wild card, and he gets much more by dangling it and perpetuating the dynamic than actually exercising it.”
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