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Saudi Arabia and the Russia–Ukraine War

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • August 16, 2023

    Saudi Arabia’s approach towards the Russia–Ukraine War is characterised by a commitment to neutrality, mediation efforts and providing humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian refugees. While Riyadh’s primary political and security focus has traditionally remained within the Arab and Islamic world, it has displayed a profound concern for the ongoing developments in the Russia–Ukraine War. This Saudi stance towards the Russia–Ukraine War underscores the Kingdom’s dynamic and forward-looking foreign policy initiatives, as championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    On 5–6 August 2023, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting of the National Security Advisers/representatives of over 40 countries along with the representatives of the United Nations, the European Commission and the European Council. The meeting, held in Jeddah, agreed to continue consultations and exchange opinions to find a way to restore peace between Russia and Ukraine. Ironically, Russia was not invited to the meeting. While Ukraine described the meeting as “fruitful consultations”,1 Russia stated that “without … taking into account its interests, no meetings on the Ukrainian crisis have the slightest added value”.2

    Since the beginning of the Russia–Ukraine War, Saudi Arabia has adhered to a stance of neutrality while consistently advocating for a peaceful resolution through diplomatic negotiations. Over time, this neutrality has evolved into a more proactive diplomatic engagement, with Saudi Arabia striving to mediate between Russia and Ukraine.

    Despite the deepening engagements with Russia, Saudi Arabia has voted in favour of the UN resolutions calling for the cessation of conflicts, the withdrawal of Russian forces and the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory.3 The Kingdom has maintained a good relationship with both Russia and Ukraine which makes it believe that it is uniquely positioned as a neutral, and credible mediator in the crisis.

    While appealing for a halt to the war, Saudi Arabia has provided humanitarian assistance for the Ukrainian refugees. In February 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud visited Ukraine and met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Both countries signed agreements worth US$ 400 million that included US$ 300 million in oil derivatives for Ukraine and providing humanitarian assistance of US$ 100 million through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief).4

    The Saudi foreign minister also expressed his country’s willingness to mediate in the conflict and help in resolving the situation. In less than two weeks, on 9 March 2023, Farhan Al Saud visited Moscow and met his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. He also reiterated the Saudi willingness to mediate between Russia and Ukraine to end the war.5  

    Since the creation of OPEC+ in 2016, Saudi–Russian cooperation in the energy sector has significantly deepened. For the US, the Saudi–Russia bonhomie in the OPEC+ and its impact on the global oil market has been a major concern. At a time when the US and the European countries have imposed an import ban on Russian oil, the OPEC+ deal has helped the Russian economy during the war. It has also helped Saudi Arabia to maintain its dominance in the oil market and keep its economy in shape.

    Thus, Saudi Arabia has ample reasons to uphold a neutral stance in the war, evading pressure from the US. Its relationship with Ukraine has also been warm with good political and economic ties. Saudi Arabia invited Zelenskyy to participate in the Jeddah summit of the Arab League in May 2023, where he sought the support of the organisation against Russian aggression.

    Riyadh is seeking to strengthen its reputation as a credible mediator in its neighbourhood and beyond. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been mediating in a number of regional conflicts and mediation has become an important feature of Saudi diplomacy. It has mediated in regional conflicts in the Arab/Islamic region such as in Lebanon, between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, and most recently between the conflicting parties in Sudan. Riyadh often uses its religious soft power to establish its credibility as a mediator and also provides financial aid to support and pacify the conflicting parties.

    In December 2022, Saudi Arabia and the UAE mediated between the US and Russia for the release of Brittney Griner, an American sportsperson jailed in Russia, and Victor Bout, a Russian citizen who was in a US prison.6 This has lent Riyadh a degree of confidence to engage in mediation between Russia and Ukraine.

    Success in mediation in the 18-month long Russia–Ukraine War, however, would be a formidable task for Riyadh as the war is taking place in a region which is beyond its Arab/Islamic neighbourhood where its soft power is ineffective. Despite maintaining good relations with them, Riyadh’s political and diplomatic leverages to influence the decisions of Moscow and Kiev are limited. Convincing Russia to withdraw without an acceptable deal would be difficult to achieve. In the current situation, where Russia has captured Ukrainian territory, the US and NATO are actively supporting Ukraine in the War and a refugee crisis continues to exist, the efficacy of Riyadh's mediation would remain constrained.

    In the Jeddah meeting, Riyadh has made a good start to bring the key stakeholders from across the world for consultation. Saudi mediation efforts have the potential to build an international consensus to bring the war to an end, but the intricate challenge lies in the successful translation of this consensus into tangible and effective actions on the ground.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.