Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — Arab leaders welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold Friday at a summit in Saudi Arabia that is also expected to confront conflicts across the Middle East and beyond.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also travelled to the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah for a meeting of the 22-member Arab League, highlighting host Saudi Arabia’s desire to wield global diplomatic clout.
Assad landed in Jeddah on Thursday for the gathering, his first since the bloc suspended Syria in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war.
The civilizational, cultural, natural and human resources that our Arab world possesses are sufficient to enable our countries and peoples to accomplish a comprehensive renaissance in all fields.Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
“I would like to loudly welcome Syria back to its seat among its brothers,” Algerian Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane said in the opening speech of the summit.
“We are pleased today by the attendance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in this summit,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in his remarks, adding he hoped the return would lead to “stability” in Syria.
#UAE's Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Presidential Court Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan is in #Jeddah, leading the UAE delegation participating at the 32nd #ArabLeagueSummit.@HHMansoor @KSAmofaEN #SaudiArabia pic.twitter.com/xrstrtHkl2— TRENDS (@mena_trends) May 19, 2023
As leaders walked into the main hall, Assad exchanged greetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and before the opening ceremony he met Tunisia’s president and the vice president of the United Arab Emirates.
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 embrace of Assad was a marked departure for Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian opposition and supported rebel groups during earlier stages of Syria’s war and accused Assad, a staunch Iran ally, of operating a “killing machine”.
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 Houthi 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.
Not every country in the region has been eager to mend ties with Assad.
Qatar said this month it would not normalise relations with Assad’s government but noted this would not be “an obstacle” to Arab League reintegration.
Syrian state media reported on Friday that Assad chatted and shook hands with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani before entering the summit hall.
UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan has sent his brother and vice president, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, to Jeddah, official news agency WAM said.
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.
Yet Arab League summits “have more often than not been characterised by internal disagreement and indecisiveness,” he added. “The bar for success will therefore be low.”
In addition to challenges facing the Middle East, the Arab League summit should also take on issues like the war in Ukraine and “the global economic crisis”, Khaled Manzlawiy, the bloc’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, wrote on Wednesday in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
Zelensky’s surprise visit is his first to the Middle East since Moscow’s invasion in February 2022, giving the Ukrainian leader an opportunity to address leaders of a region who have been far less united in their support of Kyiv than staunch Western allies.
Dressed in his trademark fatigues, Zelensky disembarked in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, where he was greeted by Ukraine’s ambassador and Saudi officials.
An Arab League official told AFP Zelenky’s invitation came from Saudi Arabia, not the bloc. Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A representative of the Russian embassy will also attend the summit, according to a Saudi official.
Zelensky said his priorities for the visit would be “the presentation of our peace formula whose implementation should involve as many states as possible”. Another priority, he wrote on social media, was “the protection of Ukraine’s Muslim community” in the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.