The new world order, based on equality of all its participants and initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is increasingly making its way in international relations. The results of the Arab summit, which just ended in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are a vivid example of this.
This year’s Summit came amid signs that the oil-rich kingdom is increasingly using its vast wealth, rapidly growing “soft power” and its assertive new diplomacy to play a leading role not only in its own region, but in the entire Arab world. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its economic and diplomatic power to its full extent in an attempt to make the kingdom the centerpiece of global and regional geopolitics. The Arab summit was unanimously seen as strengthening Saudi Arabia’s regional influence and signaling a new order in the Middle East.
The summit followed a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement brokered by China after years of tension, and Riyadh hopes it will give further impetus to its regional peak trajectory. But it also came against the troubling backdrop of several regional crises skillfully engineered by the West, led by the US, determined to push its old neo-colonial policies again. In this situation, the ability of the Arab world and the Kingdom to overcome the conflicts that underlie the existing regional system, its norms and institutions, is an acute question. The days before the Summit were marked by an outbreak in the Gaza Strip, as Israel and the Palestinians continued one of their worst violent clashes in years. The escalation of Israeli airstrikes and rocket fire from Gaza was another grim reminder that the stakes remain high as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on. However, it is unclear how Arab leaders will respond to the stalemate and whether this could affect the establishment of a future peace with Israel.
Arab leaders are also meeting to try to resolve the complex conflict in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is now in its fourth week, fueling fears of a wider conflict. Beyond a symbolic agreement on the treatment of civilians, Saudi-brokered negotiations have failed to convince the two warring parties to end the conflict or even to reach a long-term cease-fire. Riyadh has conducted a rescue operation to remove foreigners trapped by the fighting from Sudan and considers itself, to some extent, a mediator in the conflict. The Kingdom is a member of the Quad group, which includes the UAE, Britain, and the United States, and it supports the transition to a civilian-led government in every possible way.
Although calm has been restored since the clashes in Gaza, repeated flare-ups between Palestinians and Israel, along with the expansionist policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which the US and Joe Biden actively support, remain a key problem. And it is the one that so far stands in the way of a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which could further encourage the Kingdom’s quest for leadership and calm the region’s volatile situation.
The Jeddah summit also marked Syria’s return to the Arab League after 12 years of exclusion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the culmination of years of efforts to reengage with him. The LAS lifted Syria’s suspended membership, imposed after the crackdown on street protests that led to Syria’s civil war in 2011. Riyadh had been a key supporter of Syrian armed opposition groups trying to topple the Assad regime, but in recent weeks it has reopened its embassy in Damascus and resumed normal relations. The 32nd Summit stressed that Syria’s return to “the Arab fold marks the practical activation of the Arab role in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis in accordance with international recommendations, including Security Council resolution 2254.” The Arab countries expressed their willingness “to support with all sincerity and honesty all real efforts to promote joint Arab action toward Syria.” The Summit Declaration also called for intensified Arab efforts to assist Syria in overcoming the crisis and creating favorable conditions for the return of Syrian refugees while preserving the unity and territorial integrity of the Arab country. Bashar al-Assad himself, speaking at the summit, said that Syria’s return to the LAS was the right decision, emphasizing the focus of Arab policies on compromise and peace.
Arab summits are meant to be places where leaders exchange ideas about current affairs, and they are usually overshadowed by disagreements and rivalries. Their statements are often full of exaggeration and lack rigor and substance. Nevertheless, they have a long history of their host countries having always used them to create favorable headlines and enhance the regional prestige of their regimes and domestic situations.
The focus of this year’s meeting, however, was whether it would be a milestone in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reshape its regional policies to match its growing economic and political power. Saudi Arabia has been a regional power throughout the Middle East’s long modern history, but in order for it to lead the region, it must be a major player in terms of policy and practice. Much depends on the Kingdom’s future ability to draw on both its substantial instruments of national power and wealth and its willingness to use these instruments to influence political outcomes throughout the region. Saudi Arabia has yet to prove that its de-escalation with Iran is part of a larger foreign policy course on resolving the indirect conflicts that have been behind the rivalry between the two countries, such as Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.
The truce in Yemen, which was reinforced by the Saudi-Iranian détente, may have reversed the escalation, but negotiations to find a solution to the conflict should continue until an agreement is reached with the Hussites in Yemen on future relations. In Sudan, the Saudi-brokered humanitarian pledge has yet to translate into a resolution of the conflict. It will take a lot of investment and Riyadh’s involvement to force the warring parties to reach an agreement before Sudan plunges into a protracted war. But the summit expressed hope that both the Saudis and other Arabs would be able to douse the flames of the conflict and prevent it from spreading to other Arab countries.
The Syrian crisis is no less complex than the other challenges of Saudi diplomacy, even though the Kingdom has led an attempt to bring the Assad regime back into the Arab fold. The main reason for this is that Saudi Arabia hopes that closer ties with Assad will persuade him to cut his relations with Iran. Meanwhile, he wants Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League to clear the way to end his isolation and to return to the world stage. Assad also wants rich Arab countries to foot the bill for rebuilding his shattered country.
But as the US and Europe under its control are determined to keep Assad “in check” and insist on maintaining sanctions on his regime, the Summit noted that forging closer relations with Damascus would help break this siege and help Syrians “endure Western unjust sanctions.” At the same time, it was noted that normalization of relations with the Arab world is unlikely to break Assad off from Iran, on whose military and economic support he depends. Tehran and Damascus promised to strengthen their ties during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s just-concluded visit to Syria.
Still, the Arab summit, as the Saudi Arab News wrote, could be a big “performative event” for Saudi Arabia, where it could “spread glamorous lavender-colored carpets for its guests and demonstrate its growing influence,” but its ambitious leadership trajectory remains the subject of debate among observers in the Middle East. To lead the region, Riyadh will have both to demonstrate its ability to overcome current challenges and resolve disputes, and to invest heavily in building a shared and prosperous future for its people.
Consequently, the view that Saudi Arabia’s ascendancy signals a new order in the Middle East is undoubtedly correct and timely. However, while the region remains plagued by problems and conflicts, the question arises whether the Kingdom is capable of meeting such challenges in a spirit of cooperation and constructive engagement. In January, Saudi Arabia announced a new aid policy that will end direct, unconditional “grants and deposits,” which has raised alarm in cash-strapped countries in the region. It is unclear how the new policy will affect Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy and its political alliances with other Arab countries. But there is no doubt that the shoots of a new multipolar world are actively working their way through, with the help of the Saudis, who have embraced Putin’s idea.
The Jeddah summit will allow Saudi Arabia to assume the presidency of the Arab League for a year, and all eyes will be on Riyadh. The Arab world and its friends are optimistic that the Saudis, with their current leader Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, will translate this position into concrete plans to use their newly acquired political and economic position to play an egalitarian and effective role in the region.