Zelensky Attends Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia


JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday to join a summit of Arab leaders, including the heads of wealthy Gulf States that have already provided substantial aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.

Making his latest diplomatic tour days after barnstorming through several European capitals, Mr. Zelensky said he would meet with the kingdom’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and others. He wrote on Twitter that his trip aimed “to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world.”

Saudi Arabia had invited Mr. Zelensky to participate in the Arab League summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah. He is also expected to join the Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend, either virtually or in person, as he tries to win commitments for continued arms and aid from the world’s wealthiest democracies.

Mr. Zelensky said that another priority for his meetings with Arab leaders was to discuss the security of Ukrainian Muslims including Crimean Tatars, a long marginalized group whose homeland Russia has occupied since 2014. It was an example of how Mr. Zelensky has sought to tailor his messages to foreign audiences during the war.

Key states in the Arab world have walked a fine line between Ukraine and Russia since Moscow’s invasion nearly 15 months ago. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, in particular, has tried to position itself as a mediator and does not want to be seen as taking sides.

Saudi Arabia pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine earlier this year. The United Arab Emirates, which maintains a close relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has also pledged more than $100 million in aid for Ukraine.

A key focus of the United States and Western allies has been trying to stop Russia from finding new supplies of weapons. U.S. and NATO officials have tried to hinder Russia’s domestic manufacturing by imposing sanctions and export controls, and have put diplomatic pressure on countries to reject Russian requests for arms.

Washington appears to have succeeded in this regard with at least one key Arab nation, Egypt.

While U.S. officials were quietly pressing Cairo to supply artillery shells to Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies early this year gathered information, first reported by The Washington Post, that Egyptian officials might instead supply weapons to Russia.

After a diplomatic push by the United States and Britain, the Egyptians appeared to support the Americans. According to a subsequent intelligence report, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt rejected the idea of supplying the Russian side.

U.S. officials said that Egyptian state-owned arms makers have agreed to a contract to produce artillery shells for the United States and American contractors, who, in turn, will send them to Ukraine.

This Arab League summit will be the first one attended by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in 13 years. He was long shunned regionally and internationally over his violent suppression of Syria’s Arab Spring uprising more than a decade ago, which grew into a long civil war that continues, though fighting has ground to a standstill.

Mr. al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against their own people during the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. Russia provided significant support to the Syrian dictator in that war and used tactics, including strikes against civilian targets, that it has since employed in Ukraine.

Arab League summits are typically staid affairs of mostly regional interest, but Mr. al-Assad’s reintegration has drawn widespread attention, including criticism from some American lawmakers and from Syrians opposed to his rule. It has also sparked controversy in the region, where many are uncomfortable with the idea of re-legitimizing a leader accused of war crimes.

Mr. Zelensky’s arrival in Jeddah seemed likely to divert some attention away from Mr. al-Assad’s presence. Saudi state television showed Prince Mohammed greeting Mr. al-Assad with kisses on the cheek and a long handshake, in the first in-person meeting between the two leaders.

Arab nations such as Egypt and Tunisia have been among the countries hardest hit by the global repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both those nations were deeply dependent before the war on grain from Russia and Ukraine — Egypt is the world’s No. 1 importer of wheat, and both Egypt and Tunisia heavily subsidize bread for their poorest citizens. The two countries found themselves scrambling after the war began to feed their populations at a price that would not bankrupt them.

In Egypt, the war’s impact crystallized longstanding problems with the country’s economy, leaving Egyptians reeling from soaring inflation and a shortage of imported goods. Income from Ukrainian and Russian tourists also dried up, blowing a hole in a crucial industry. The shock the invasion sent through global markets also prompted investors to pull billions of dollars out of Egyptian bonds, setting off a monetary crisis.

Yet many Egyptians and other Arabs have sided with Russia partly out of antipathy toward the West, and Egypt has tried to strike a balance between maintaining warm ties with Moscow and not offending its U.S. and European allies.

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