Sat 20 May 2023 3:16 pm - Jerusalem Time
By inviting Zelensky to the Arab summit, Riyadh aspires to be universal in its diplomacy
During the Arab League summit Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia brought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's ally, into the same hall, in a strong signal of the kingdom's global diplomatic ambitions.
The former is highly respected by Western countries for standing up to the Russian invasion of his country. The second has long come under fire for the atrocities committed against his people in a conflict that has made him dependent on Moscow.
Analysts believe that the unexpected presence of the two men in the city overlooking the Red Sea seemed to aim to highlight the influence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was isolated internationally less than five years ago due to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country's consulate in Istanbul.
“The main goal of the Saudi leadership is to portray the crown prince as a key figure in the changing geopolitical landscape,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.
He adds that the war in Ukraine "certainly ended" the isolation of the crown prince linked to the Khashoggi case, and the Saudis are currently seeking "to prove that they are able to bridge gaps that others do not even dream of" bridging.
Although the Jeddah summit did not lead to any important decisions, Saudi Arabia can boast that it managed to host a meeting that ran smoothly and during which the tension caused by the presence of Assad and Zelensky at the same time was masked, for at least for a day.
Assad's visit to Saudi Arabia followed a series of preliminary events: In recent weeks, the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers have exchanged visits and announced their intention to reopen diplomatic missions closed since 2012, when Riyadh severed relations with Syria over the conflict.
The broader regional embrace dates back to 2018, when the UAE resumed its relations with Damascus and led the campaign to return Assad to his Arab surroundings.
Despite this, concerns remained about the extent to which Assad's presence would be accepted on Friday, given the reservations of some Arab leaders regarding his return to the Arab incubator.
"It's all about Bashar al-Assad," says Hussein Ibish, an expert on Middle East affairs.
He adds, "If he was cooperative and did not blame them (the Arabs), then the re-acceptance of his victorious regime, which is inevitable, however abhorrent, will continue 'naturally'."
Ultimately, Assad paid tribute to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of a kingdom she had previously described as a "killing machine".
And at a time when he stressed the importance of each country arranging its affairs without "foreign interference", al-Assad did not anger the leaders of the Arab League, which allowed the Syrian opposition, during its summit in Doha in 2013, to assume the official seat of his country.
Syrian state media reported that Assad shook hands and spoke with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Ab Thani, a fierce opponent of Assad and whose government has called for Damascus to be held accountable for "war crimes" committed against the Syrian people.
However, all these steps do not mean that the Syrian crisis has resolved, especially if Assad's reintegration does not address issues related to Syrian refugees and the Captagon trade.
Rabiha Seif Allam, an expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies in Cairo, considers that "the Arab welcome to Syria is more festive than anything tangible."
And she added, "The next procedures and steps with Syria have other calculations, because the demands of the Arab countries are not related to democracy or governance, but are related to regional security, drugs, the return of refugees and terrorism."
Christine Diwan, a researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, believes that "returning Assad to the Arab incubator has created differences, most notably with Qatar."
"But Saudi Arabia will enjoy taking the reins and imposing an Arab consensus," she adds.
Zelensky was more confrontational at the Jeddah summit, accusing some Arab leaders of "turning a blind eye" to the suffering in his country at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Winner Saif Allam says, "Zelinsky's presence spoiled Assad's joy at the summit because he reminded those present of Russia's crimes in Ukraine."
In a press conference at the end of the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said that Riyadh's decision to invite Zelensky reflects "openness to hearing all parties and all voices... Without hearing (all) points of view, we will not be able to be active contributors to finding a solution."
However, the Syrians, at least, were completely uninterested in hearing Zelensky's speech. The Syrian delegation turned a deaf ear to the speech of the Ukrainian president, refraining from putting headphones on for translation, according to the Syrian newspaper, Al-Watan, which is close to the government.
But this kind of reaction likely means little to the Saudis, who may be more interested in changing the impression that they are so close to Russia that is a source of concern for Washington.
And Diwan considers that "Zelinsky's call contradicts this impression and also warns Russia that the reintegration of Assad does not give it absolute freedom in the region."
Omar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham, says that this is consistent with the image that Riyadh presents of itself as a "diplomatic and possibly economic bridge between the various international players."
He believes that "Zelinsky's invitation shows that Riyadh does not only want to be a regional player, but also an international player, and to create a special diplomatic position for itself in a changing, multipolar world order."