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Ukraine’s Zelensky in Saudi Arabia for Arab League summit

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's also attending, is expected to discuss the drug trade and Syrian refugees at his first summit since Syria was readmitted to the Arab League.
Volodymyr Zelensky at Arab League Summit

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on Friday. The leader criticized some in the region for "turning a blind eye" to Russia's war, but also thanked Saudi Arabia and others for their support.

The Ukrainian leader’s participation adds to an already historic summit in Jeddah that welcomed on Thursday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the first time in more than a decade. 

Al Arabiya reported early Friday afternoon local time that Zelensky arrived in Saudi Arabia for the summit. Reuters reported earlier that a French government plane would take Zelensky to Saudi Arabia and then bring him to the G-7 meeting in Japan. A diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that security precautions were high for the travel route that Zelensky has taken. 



In his speech, Zelensky called on the Arab world to help "protect" Ukraine, specifically mentioning the Tatar Muslim community in the Russian-occupied island of Crimea. Zelensky also praised Saudi Arabia for helping mediate the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war last year, calling this a "positive experience."

Zelensky accused some in the audience of "turning a blind eye" to Russia, specifically referencing the invasion of Russian territory and imprisonment of Ukrainian soldiers during the course of the war. 

"Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye those cages and illegal annexations," he said.

However, Zelensky praised the "majority" of Arab states for supporting Ukraine, including at the United Nations. 

"I want to thank Saudi Arabia and the majority of you for supporting international positions and the UN charter," he said. 

Background: This year’s Arab League summit is being held in the Saudi city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. The summit has taken on increased importance this year due to the participation of Assad. The longtime Syrian ruler has not attended an Arab League summit since the body expelled Syria in 2011 in response to the ongoing civil war in the country. Syria was readmitted to the Arab League earlier this month.

Assad landed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday. He is expected to make promises on stopping the illicit drug trade and ensuring a safe return of refugees, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Al-Monitor on Thursday.

Why it matters: Zelensky’s attendance at the Arab League summit comes as somewhat of a surprise, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has had a significant economic effect on the region. The Arab Gulf states have tried to maintain neutrality in the war, and Riyadh has bolstered its energy alliance with Russia via the OPEC+ alliance both countries are a part of. Saudi officials have also led outreach to Ukraine. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Ukraine and met Zelensky in February, and Riyadh was involved in brokering a prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv last September.

The Ukraine war has had its toll on food security in the region. Egypt in particular has experienced severe inflation since Russia invaded Ukraine last year and disrupted Ukraine’s grain exports. Egypt imported most of its grain from both countries before the war. Relatedly, Turkey announced on Wednesday an extension of the deal it brokered between Ukraine and Russia on the safe passage of grain exports.

Earlier this month, Bahraini Foreign Minister Rashid Al Zayani visited Ukraine and met with Zelensky. Zayani spent time in a Ukrainian bomb shelter during the trip, Al-Monitor reported.



Know more: Most Arab League member states sent either their head of state or head of government to Jeddah for the summit. The United Arab Emirates, however, sent Vice President Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, according to the official Emirates News Agency. This comes amid reports of growing rivalry between the two states.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune notably did not intend, sneding his foreign and prime minister instead. Algeria hosted the last summit and is a close ally of Russia. Morocco also sent its foreign minister in lieu of King Mohammed VI. 

Sudan also notably sent Ambassador Dafallah Al-Haj Ali, the envoy of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, to the summit, according to the official Sudan News Agency. The Arab League held an emergency meeting on the conflict in Sudan earlier this month.

This is a developing story and will be updated…

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