Last weekend, at the extremely marbley Ritz Carlton in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, representatives of some 40 countries came together to discuss how to end the war in Ukraine. Not that anyone really got to enjoy the scenery. A senior administration official who was present at the talks told me they were stuck in the “overly air-conditioned” conference rooms, which, the official said, were “bone-chillingly cold.” Nor was anything decided or agreed-upon, really.
Still, it was a pretty monumental meeting, both for who was there and who wasn’t. Representatives of China, South Africa, Brazil and other members of what is often referred as the Global South sent emissaries, and the Chinese representative for Eurasia even met on the sidelines with Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, and Toria Nuland, the second-in-command at the State Department. Russia, on the other hand, wasn’t invited—and slammed the talks as a “hoax.” It was also, given the variety of viewpoints on the war among the participants, universally seen as a productive and positive conference, so much so that everyone, including China, the U.S., and Ukraine, vowed to reconvene.
Of course, the meeting was perhaps most notable for who hosted it: Saudi Arabia, and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yes, the man who, according to the C.I.A., ordered the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and whose country Joe Biden once labeled “a pariah,” is now convening the most plausible talks on ending the war in Ukraine. He got China to attend and take the conversation seriously. (“The Chinese were constructive,” said the senior administration official. “It’s the first meeting they had been to, and they listened carefully and participated in the discussion.”) He got Brazil, whose president has refused to condemn Putin’s invasion, to send representatives. Mexico, South Africa, Zambia, the African Union, and many other members of the non-aligned world—a segment of the globe that has been skeptical about Western arguments about Russia and Ukraine—also sent people. “I think the Saudis were very active in getting other countries to join,” said the senior administration official. “They played an active role and they have been helpful on a number of these issues. There was utility in having this conversation in a non-European setting, convened by a non-European country.”