Zelenskyy makes surprise appearance at Arab League summit as Syria's Al Assad returns

Moves underscore Saudi Arabia's efforts to balance lines of communication with both Russia and the West, experts say

Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses Arab League summit

Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses Arab League summit
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The surprise appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Arab League summit in Jeddah on Friday has shifted attention from the return of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad to the group after 12 years of isolation.

All eyes had been on Mr Al Assad when he landed at the Saudi Red Sea port city on Thursday to attend the gathering of leaders from 22 Arab countries.

Arab leaders had shunned Mr Al Assad's government after a crackdown on protesters in 2011 led to a civil war that has resulted in the deaths of more than half a million people and the displacement of millions of Syrians.

However, Mr Zelenskyy's unexpected arrival at the summit's diverted the spotlight from Mr Al Assad's presence.

Ukraine's President tweeted that he was beginning his “first-ever visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world”.

He said his agenda included “temporarily occupied territories”, a “peace formula” and energy co-operation.

Saudi Arabia “plays a significant role and we are ready to take our co-operation to a new level”, Mr Zelenskyy said.

Mr Zelenskyy's presence is designed to highlight Saudi Arabia’s influence – and potential as a mediator not only to Ukraine and Russia, but for the region, said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at London’s Chatham House.

“With Mr Al Assad also there, Riyadh is making a case for an independent regional approach as well,” she told The National.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also “showcasing a robust and more mature Saudi foreign policy driven by domestic priorities and focused on de escalation and regional security”.

Ukraine is aiming to gather as much international support as possible “among Arab states that have maintained ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the war”, she said.

Ukraine and Russia have been at war since Moscow invaded its neighbour in February last year.

“A great atmosphere at the Arab States League Summit. We really appreciate the Arab world's commitment to Ukraine's striving for the just and safe being for every nation,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Mr Zelenskyy's office, tweeted.

Mr Al Assad's visit underscores Saudi Arabia's efforts to balance lines of communication with both Russia and the West, said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank.

"I think it complements Mr Zelenskyy's trip in a sense, the two visits should not be viewed as contradictory. Ukraine has been trying to court closer ties with the Arab world over the past year with some success," Mr Ramani told The National.

Mr Zelenskky "will undoubtedly urge Arab countries to side more firmly with Ukraine and against Russia, especially with sanctions, which is very unlikely to succeed," he said.

"But Ukraine has made diplomatic inroads in the Middle East and North Africa," he said.

Updated: May 19, 2023, 3:00 PM