Bashar al-Assad’s return to the Arab League was expected to dominate the agenda of the summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday, May 19. Twelve years after being excluded for his bloody repression of the Syrian uprising, President Assad, who was all smiles, was warmly welcomed by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS). But his presence was quickly eclipsed by a surprise guest. On his way to Japan for the G7 summit, aboard a plane chartered by France, Volodymyr Zelensky came to court the Arab leaders, in hopes that they would finally lend an attentive ear to his calls to condemn the Russian invasion.
“Unfortunately there are some in the world, and here among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,” lamented the Ukrainian president, inviting the region’s leaders to “take an honest look” at the war waged in his country by Moscow. In the audience of Arab leaders, Zelensky was met with rather circumspect looks. Some, like the Algerians, the Emiratis and especially the Syrians, have a close relationship with Russia. The supporters of a pragmatic neutrality in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, a strategic partner in the Middle East, had no choice but to play along in MBS’ new diplomatic “coup”.
The fiery monarch’s ambitions go beyond the regional restructuring project he has been working on since he reengaged with Iran in March. MBS has said he is “ready to continue mediation efforts” between Kyiv and Moscow. As a balancing act, he has supported UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territories, but has resisted US pressure to increase oil production to cut into Russia’s revenues. In September 2022, Riyadh facilitated an exchange of a dozen prisoners between Moscow and Kyiv. In February, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, was present in Kyiv and pledged $400 million in aid for Ukraine.
“The presence of Zelensky at the same summit as Assad is emblematic of this regional change. With the vacuum left by the American withdrawal, which allowed the Russians to gain a foothold in Syria, the regional players are thinking primarily in terms of their own interests rather than as members of an axis. They are trying to find a new modus vivendi suitable for all,” observes Saudi analyst Mohammed Alyahya of the Harvard Kennedy School.
Yet this vision was not shared by all on Friday. “The invitation of Mr. Zelensky was made at the last moment by the Saudis, without consulting the Arab partners. No one opposed it, but there were protests,” said an Arab diplomat. The Ukrainian president slightly missed his mark by invoking the suffering of the Muslim Tatars living under Russian occupation in Crimea, or by condemning Iran’s supply of attack drones to Russia. “The problem is that he didn’t talk about the plight of the Palestinians, while he went to Israel to ask for its support. This is a double standard,” the diplomat continued.
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