Never before has a Saudi Foreign Minister visited Ukraine in three decades of bilateral relations, established a year after the former Soviet republic's independence. Until Sunday, when Prince Faisal bin Farhan landed by surprise in Kiev escorted by a large diplomatic delegation to meet President Volodymir Zelensky, a few days after the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
Accompanied by members of his cabinet, Zelensky received the Saudi diplomat at the Mariinskyi Palace to finalise the humanitarian aid shipment to which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had committed. In October, the Prime Minister and de facto ruler of the Wahhabi kingdom had a telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president to assure him that the signing of a $400 million Memorandum of Understanding was guaranteed. Faisal bin Farhan's symbolic visit served to materialise the promise.
The investment agreement was divided into two parts. The first $100 million will go towards humanitarian aid, while the remaining $300 million will be provided in the form of energy resources, Zelensky's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told a press conference.
Royal Court adviser and general supervisor of the international aid agency KSrelief, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Rabeeah, and the executive chairman of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, Sultan Abdulrahman Al-Marshad, on the Saudi side, and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko, on the Ukrainian side, signed the documents.
The presence of Iranian weaponry in Ukraine was another issue on the table of particular concern in Riyadh. The Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia's regional nemesis, sent Shahed 136 aircraft and Revolutionary Guard trainers to the Russian army. The Saudi delegation shared with the Ukrainian government its combat experience against the notorious Iranian-made kamikaze drones used in Yemen by the Houthi rebels.
Faisal bin Farhan's trip to Ukraine has caught analysts off guard. Saudi Arabia remains a close ally of Russia, especially in energy matters. In recent months, the two have strengthened their partnership within OPEC+ to keep oil production down and prices up. However, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries have a contradictory relationship with Russia in this regard. On the one hand, Moscow is perceived as a direct competitor, but at the same time they have common interests.
Riyadh aims to become a leading humanitarian actor in a conflict in which it has sought to maintain a certain balance. It has not sent military aid to Kiev, but neither has it backed Moscow's invasion. Instead, it tried to wrest the role of mediator between the parties from Turkey, but only successfully intervened in the release in September of a dozen Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russia.
The Wahhabi kingdom has tried to maintain a neutral position, but at all costs preserving its interests, which, according to former US ambassador to Yemen and Middle East Institute vice-president Gerald Feierstein, focus on 'maintaining strong relations with its main security partner, the United States; its number one economic partner, China; and its key OPEC+ partner, Russia'.
"The Gulf sought to maintain a 'balanced' position in the face of the Russian invasion, which should not be confused with neutrality," explains Gulf Research Center founder and president Abdulaziz Al Sager in the pages of the Montaigne Institute. "While Gulf countries do not fully subscribe to the Russian narrative, they understand the national security concerns behind Moscow's move. What is striking from the Saudi point of view is the similarity between Ukraine and Yemen".
However, Saudi Arabia was one of 141 countries that voted in favour of a UN resolution urging Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Only seven countries voted against, of which only one was Arab, Bashar al-Assad's Syria.
Ukraine's victory at the behest of the UN General Assembly was undisputed, but Zelensky's government is aware that it needs more support outside the Western bloc to put pressure on Russia on all fronts. The position of the so-called Global South could tip the balance, and Saudi Arabia has a privileged position in this space. For this reason, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said he was determined to develop relations with Riyadh at all levels.