Ukraine's Zelensky in Saudi Arabia for Arab League summit

The previously unannounced visit is the President's first to the Middle East since Moscow's military operation in February 2022


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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Fri 19 May 2023, 3:54 PM

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he landed Friday in Saudi Arabia, host of an Arab League summit attended by long isolated Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a close Russian ally.

The previously unannounced visit is Zelensky's first to the Middle East since Moscow's military operation in February 2022, giving the Ukrainian leader an opportunity to address leaders in the region.

"Arrived in Saudi Arabia. I will speak at the Arab League summit," Zelensky said on Twitter, adding he plans to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other leaders.

He arrived in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah one day after Assad, whose government is being readmitted to the Arab League after its suspension in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war.

Earlier on Friday, Assad met Tunisian President Kais Saied, Syria's official SANA news agency said, kicking off a series of bilateral talks before the summit is expected to officially open at 2pm (1100 GMT).

"This summit is very important," Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said after reaching Jeddah earlier this week, adding the Syrian delegation was "here to make this summit a success".

Main streets in Jeddah were lined with the flags of Arab League member states including Syria, as Al-Riyadh newspaper declared on Friday it would be "the summit of all summits".

The meeting follows a frenetic stretch of high-stakes diplomacy triggered by the kingdom's surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement deal with Iran announced in March.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has restored bilateral ties with Syria and ramped up a push for peace in Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

Riyadh also played a leading role in evacuating civilians from Sudan when fighting erupted there last month, and it is currently hosting representatives of Sudan's warring parties in a bid to hammer out a ceasefire.

Global preoccupation with Ukraine could amount to "a kiss of life for the League to play its role as a coordinating station for efforts to resolve conflicts in the region," Egyptian analyst Rabha Seif Allam told AFP.

From Riyadh's perspective, a successful summit would involve concrete commitments from Syria on issues including war refugees and the captagon trade, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.


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