Arab leaders, joined by Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time in more than a decade, were holding an annual summit in Saudi Arabia, with a focus on Sudan and other conflicts — and featuring a surprise visit by Ukraine’s leader.
The meeting comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues regional diplomacy with the same vigour he previously brought to the oil-rich kingdom’s confrontation with its arch-rival Iran and regional proxies.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has restored diplomatic ties with Iran, is ending the kingdom’s years-long war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and has led the push for Syria’s return to the Arab League, 12 years after its membership was suspended over Mr Assad’s bloody crackdown against Arab Spring protests.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he has kicked off a visit to Saudi Arabia, aiming to “enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world”.
Among other topics he mentioned were Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a peace “formula”, and energy cooperation.
He also said he would address the summit.
Arab states have remained largely neutral over Russia’s war on Ukraine, with many maintaining close ties to Moscow.
As leaders from the 22-member league meet in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, attention is expected to shift to Sudan.
The East African country’s top generals – both of whom have been backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states – have been battling each other across the country for over a month, killing hundreds and sparking an exodus from the capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere.
Gen Abdel-Fattah Burhan, leader of the armed forces, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, agreed to a pact in Jeddah last week that promised safe passage for civilians fleeing the fighting and protection for aid groups.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have meanwhile been leading international efforts to broker a lasting truce.
The fighting has killed more than 600 people and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes.
In recent years, Mr Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria’s territory from insurgents with help from Russia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia had been a leading sponsor of the opposition at the height of the war but pulled back as the insurgents were eventually cornered in a small pocket of north-western Syria.
There are some Arab holdouts to Damascus’ rehabilitation, including gas-rich Qatar, which still supports Syria’s opposition.
Qatar has said it will not stand in the way of the Arab consensus on readmitting Syria but would also not normalise bilateral relations without a political solution to the conflict.
Western countries, which still view Mr Assad as a pariah over his forces’ aerial bombardment and gas attacks against civilians during the 12-year civil war, have criticised his return to the Arab fold and vowed to maintain crippling sanctions.