Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky implored Arab leaders meeting in Saudi Arabia on Friday not to bow to Russian influence, as he continued a diplomatic tour to drum up international support ahead of a widely expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Zelensky paid a surprise visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the annual Arab League summit, where he addressed countries that enjoy warm relations with Russia. In his speech, Mr Zelensky called on leaders – some of whom have overseen massacres and filled prisons with opponents – to help rescue Ukrainians “from the cages of Russian prisons”.
“Unfortunately, there are those in the world, and here among you, who turn a blind eye to these illegal cages and annexations,” he said. “I’m here so everyone can take an honest look, no matter how hard the Russians try to influence.”
His remarks seemed particularly pointed given that for the first time in more than a decade, Arab leaders were welcoming back Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who relied heavily on Russian military support to wage war against his own people. He had been largely shunned, regionally and internationally, since 2011, when he began violently suppressing the Arab Spring uprising in Syria, using chemical weapons against his own people at times in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Despite pressure from the United States, many Arab states have avoided taking sides since Moscow invaded Ukraine nearly 15 months ago, saying they did not want to be drawn into a competition among the superpowers and must be able to pursue their own interests.
Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has become a port of war for wealthy Russians, while the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, hosted a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States at the end of last year.
Saudi officials have tried to maintain good relations with both sides in the conflict. They pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine even as they coordinated with Russia and other OPEC Plus cartel oil producers to prop up energy prices, angering US officials .
“All Arab countries had excellent relations with Ukraine before this crisis, and we are also keen to preserve our relations with Russia,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said during a meeting. a press conference after the summit. war that we must find a way to end, and that will not happen without being open to hearing all sides and all voices.
Mr Zelensky was invited to the summit by Saudi Arabia, where he met the kingdom’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – often referred to by his initials, MBS – and thanked him for his support. Ukraine’s leader is due to appear at the Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan this weekend to seek new arms and aid pledges from the world’s wealthiest democracies, amid a wave of trips to build support ahead of the expected counter-offensive.
The invitation came at a time when Prince Mohammed, 37, is carving out a new role for himself on the world stage, portraying himself as a bridge builder and mediator. When the prince began his rise to power in 2015, he pursued an aggressive foreign policy, including a disastrous military intervention in neighboring Yemen which has contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
But his approach has quirky towards de-escalating conflict in recent years as he focuses on his plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy.
In March, the Saudi government announced it would restore diplomatic ties with longtime rival Iran, and this month Saudi officials hosted talks between the warring parties in Sudan.
“MBS is committed to restoring Saudi Arabia to regional and even global leadership — to be at the center of it all,” said Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The Saudis have their hands on everything right now.”
The flurry of diplomacy underscores Prince Mohammed’s efforts to cement the kingdom’s position as a rising power, forging greater independence from the United States, its longtime security guarantor.
Speaking to leaders on Friday, Prince Mohammed told “Saudi Arabia’s friends in the West and East” that the kingdom is focused on peace. He said he was determined to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and was “ready to continue to carry out mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine”.
For Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, the arrival of Mr. Zelensky carried several messages. One is potentially for Russia: “Enough is enough. Stop the war,” he said. At the same time, the Gulf countries want their American and European allies to know that “our balanced position on the war between Russia and Ukraine does not mean that we are on the side of Russia”, he said. declared.
Mr Zelensky said that another priority of his meetings with Arab leaders was to discuss the security of Ukrainian Muslims, including Crimean Tatarsa long-marginalized group whose homeland has occupied Russia since 2014. It was an example of how Mr. Zelensky sought adapt its messages to foreign audiences during the war.
“Look how much suffering long-lasting wars have brought to Libya, Syria and Yemen,” he said. “How many lives have been ruined by years of fighting in Sudan and Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mr. Zelensky’s appearance also quickly diverted attention from the rally’s most controversial guest, Mr. al-Assad.
Russian military support has been essential to Mr. al-Assad’s survival in Syria’s civil war, and Russian forces have used tactics in Syria, including strikes against civilian targetswhom they have since employed in Ukraine.
Mr. al-Assad appeared to receive a warm welcome on Friday, when Saudi state television showed Prince Mohammed greeting him with kisses on the cheek. When the prince began his rise to power in 2015, the war in Syria was still raging and Saudi Arabia had cut diplomatic ties with Mr al-Assad, giving support to some of the rebels fighting him.
Yet earlier this month, Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties with Syria and the Arab League voted to re-admit the country, formalizing Mr. al-Assad’s reintegration into the region.
Arab officials who backed his return argued that ostracizing him did little and at least that way they can hope to influence developments in Syria that affect the entire region, such as the cross-border flow of drugs. illicit trafficking and the fate of Syrian refugees in Syria. neighboring countries.
“The status quo was not sustainable,” said Prince Faisal, Saudi Foreign Minister. “We care about finding practical and realistic solutions, and that will only happen by cooperating and partnering with the government in Damascus.”
In his speech, Prince Mohammed said he was delighted that Mr al-Assad had been welcomed back into the league.
“We hope this will help support Syria’s stability and get things back to normal,” he said.
Mr. al-Assad’s regional comeback has drawn widespread criticism, including from Syrians opposed to his rule and a group of US congressmen, who introduced a bill called the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. Many people in the Middle East are also uncomfortable with the idea of re-legitimizing a leader accused of war crimes.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the leader of Qatar – who openly opposes normalizing relations with Syria – left the summit on Friday without speaking, in what appeared to be a protest against Mr al-Assad’s presence .
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. al-Assad used his few minutes to castigate the “dominance of the West, devoid of principles, morals, friends and partners”. The emergence of a multipolar world is “a historic opportunity to reorganize our affairs with the least amount of foreign intervention”, he said.
“The most important thing is to leave the internal issues to their employees, because they are capable of handling their issues,” he said.
Hwaida Saad in Beirut and Viviane Yee in Cairo contributed reporting.