Saudi Arabia was set to host talks on Russia's war on Ukraine on Saturday in the latest flexing of its diplomatic muscle, though expectations are mild for what the gathering might achieve.
The meeting of national security advisers and other officials in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah underscores Riyadh's "readiness to exert its good offices to contribute to reaching a solution that will result in permanent peace," the official Saudi Press Agency said Friday.
Invitations were sent to around 30 countries, Russia not among them, according to diplomats familiar with the preparations.
The SPA report said only that "a number of countries" would attend.
It follows Ukraine-organized talks in Copenhagen in June that were designed to be informal and did not yield an official statement.
Instead, diplomats said the sessions were intended to engage a range of countries in debates about a path towards peace, notably members of the BRICS bloc with Russia that have adopted a more neutral stance on the war in contrast to Western powers.
Speaking Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the wide range of countries represented in the Jeddah talks, including developing countries which have been hit hard by the surge in food prices triggered by the war.
"This is very important, because on issues such as food security, the fate of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world directly depends on how fast the world moves to implement the peace formula," he said.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter which works closely with Russia on oil policy, has touted its ties to both sides and positioned itself as a possible mediator in the war, now nearly a year and a half old.
"In hosting the summit, Saudi Arabia wants to reinforce its bid to become a global middle power with the ability to mediate conflicts while asking us to forget some of its failed strategies and actions of the past, like its Yemen intervention or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group.
The 2018 slaying of Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, by Saudi agents in Turkey once threatened to isolate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler.
But the energy crisis produced by the Ukraine war elevated Saudi Arabia's global importance, helping to facilitate his rehabilitation.
Moving forward Riyadh "wants to be in the company of an India or a Brazil, because only as a club can these middle powers hope to have impact on the world stage," Hiltermann added.
"Whether they will be able to agree on all things, such as the Ukraine war, is a big question."
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, failing in its attempt to take Kyiv but seizing swathes of territory that Western-backed Ukrainian troops are fighting to recapture.
Beijing, which says it is a neutral party in the conflict but has been criticized by Western capitals for refusing to condemn Moscow, announced Friday it would participate in the Jeddah talks.
"China is willing to work with the international community to continue to play a constructive role in promoting a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis," said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
India has also confirmed its attendance in Jeddah, describing the move as in line "with our longstanding position" that "dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward." South Africa said it too will take part.
Saudi Arabia has backed U.N. Security Council resolutions denouncing Russia's invasion as well as its unilateral annexation of territory in eastern Ukraine.
Yet last year, Washington criticized oil production cuts approved in October, saying they amounted to "aligning with Russia" in the war.
In May, the kingdom hosted Zelensky at an Arab summit in Jeddah, where he accused some Arab leaders of turning "a blind eye" to the horrors of Russia's invasion.
In sum, Riyadh has adopted a "classic balancing strategy" that could soften Russia's response to this weekend's summit, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.
"They're working with the Russians on several files, so I guess Russia will deem such an initiative if not totally favorable then not unacceptable as well."