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The backstory: Every year, political leaders meet for the Arab League summit. There are 22 countries in the Arab League, which covers regions in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Back in 2011, Syria’s participation in the Arab League was suspended because of violent suppression of dissent there at the hands of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, al-Assad has welcomed Russian interference in its civil war, trying to control rebel forces with help from Russian airstrikes.
More recently: Recently, diplomacy has been taken up a notch in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran brought back diplomatic ties, and Syria was invited back into the League. But, most Arab states have taken a step back when it comes to the war in Ukraine, staying neutral. Many of them aren’t taking sides, trying to avoid being involved in what they see as a competition between world powers, instead focusing on their own interests. Saudi Arabia has made interesting moves in this conflict, though, both pledging US$400 million in aid to Ukraine and at the same time making deals with Russia in OPEC+ to bring up energy prices.
The development: This year’s summit took place last Friday in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was welcomed back, but hundreds in the rebel-held northern region of Syria protested being represented by him at the conference. While there, al-Assad said that he hoped his return would show a new phase of peace and prosperity for the Arab states. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also showed up in a surprise visit, invited by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS). He tried to get more support for Ukraine, bringing up the Middle East’s history of colonization and foreign occupation. He also criticized Iran for supplying Russia with drones, and he outlined his own peace plan to the Arab states.
“All Arab countries have excellent relations with Ukraine that predate this crisis, and likewise we are eager to preserve our relationships with Russia," said Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at a news conference after the summit. “There is a war that we have to find a way to end, and that won’t happen without being open to hearing all parties and all voices.”
“I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction,” said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at the summit.
“Saudi Arabia’s push to bring Syria back into the fold is part of a broader shift in the kingdom’s approach to regional politics,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, a Mideast analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft. “The previously adventurist foreign policy defined by the Yemen intervention and efforts to confront Iran are now being abandoned in favor of a more cautious approach.”