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Zelenskyy arrives at Arab League summit, as Saudi Arabia flexes diplomatic muscle

In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, leaders of Arab countries pose for a group picture ahead of the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday.
Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, leaders of Arab countries pose for a group picture ahead of the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday.

Updated May 19, 2023 at 10:32 AM ET

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a previously unannounced visit to the Arab League Summit as his host, Saudi Arabia, flexes its diplomatic muscle.

The annual summit — whose critics often slam it as a staid, dysfunctional and toothless event — has gotten a shot in the arm this year, not just by the Ukrainian leader's surprise appearance, but by the attendance of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time in over a decade.

Following Zelenskyy's tour of Europe last week, the Ukrainian leader spoke at the Arab summit as part of a broader pitch to firm up global support for his country against Russia's almost 15-month-long invasion.

And Syria's return to the Arab League this year reflects a much larger realignment shaping the region after Saudi Arabia and Iran restored diplomatic ties in a deal brokered by China.

In a region gripped by diverging interests and multiple armed conflicts, it's significant to see Arab leaders sitting in a circle — literally — and listening to one another.

Yet, more important than what's said is sometimes who said it.

Here's a look at the summit and why it matters:

What's the Arab League?

Heads of Arab states are seated around the table at a summit meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, Aug. 30, 1967.
/ AP
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AP
Heads of Arab states are seated around the table at a summit meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, Aug. 30, 1967.

The Cairo-headquartered bloc was formed 78 years ago by a common, if imagined identity of what it means to be "Arabic-speaking" peoples. Its founding members included Egypt and Syria, before expanding to its current membership of 22 countries.

Although several of its members over the years have normalized relations with Israel, the Arab League continues to uphold the Palestinian cause as one of its most important missions. Palestinians have full membership in the bloc, despite not having an independent state.

The organization's members frequently share common policy goals, with deep military and trade links among the neighbors. But there are also deep divisions and competing interests among and within member states.

Sudan's military leader is not expected to attend, though one of his Cabinet officials will. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan is leading the army in a fight against his former deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads a band of militia forces.

Delegates attend a prep meeting ahead of the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Delegates attend a prep meeting ahead of the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Also absent this year will be United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who instead is dispatching his brother, Vice President Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed. Although Sheikh Mohammed's absence from the Jeddah summit is apparently due to prior commitments, it comes amid a backdrop of increased tensions and rivalry with Saudi Arabia's crown prince.

The bloc's membership spans across the Levante region, the Gulf and Africa with countries like Comoros and Djibouti among its members. Its most influential countries have traditionally been Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Jordan, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Why was Ukraine's president invited to the summit?

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) during the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday.
/ Saudi Press Agency via AP
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Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) during the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday.

For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the summit is a chance to showcase his bold strategy of having Zelenskyy, whose nation is at war with Russia, at the same summit as Assad, whose government is propped up by Russian military support.

In a speech to the gathered heads of state Friday, Zelenskyy called for Arab leaders to protect Ukrainian Muslims and the sovereignty of states.

He said there are "some among you who turn a blind eye" to Russia's illegal annexations of Ukrainian land and prisoners of war.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have resisted pressure to pick sides in the larger competition for power between the United States and Russia.

Saudi Arabia has mediated in prisoner swaps in the Russia-Ukraine war, and has pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine. But the kingdom has also maintained an oil pact with Russia that helps keep energy prices up, which supports both their economies.

Other Arab states, meanwhile, have kept business ties open with Russia, helping Russian oligarchs evade the squeeze of Western sanctions.

Even so, Arab states like Egypt rely heavily on grains from Ukraine and the Black Sea region. Several also maintain longtime military ties with Russia.

Zelenskyy's office said he began the working visit by meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed, discussing ways to end the war in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia's role in releasing captives held by Russian forces. He also invited the crown prince to visit Ukraine.

Why is Syria allowed back into the Arab League?

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, Syrian President Bashar Assad (left) is accompanied by Prince Badr bin Sultan, the deputy governor of Mecca, upon his arrival at Jeddah airport, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, ahead of the Arab summit.
/ Saudi Press Agency via AP
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Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, Syrian President Bashar Assad (left) is accompanied by Prince Badr bin Sultan, the deputy governor of Mecca, upon his arrival at Jeddah airport, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, ahead of the Arab summit.

Assad's participation marks the culmination of steady efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, ending the country's regional isolation and turning a page on past Arab efforts to topple him.

The earthquakes that devastated parts of Syria and Turkey earlier this year sped up efforts to rebuild ties with Syria's government as Arab states rushed to provide emergency aid. The United States even eased its crippling sanctions on Syria for six months to alleviate barriers to aid reaching people there.

Countries like Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, which are each facing economic challenges, want the Syrian regime to ensure the safe return of huge numbers of Syrian refugees being hosted in these countries.

Arab Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, want Syria to end its lucrative drug-smuggling trade into their borders. They also want to help rebuild Syria and restart investments in the country.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 at a time when countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar were seeking to punish the regime for its suppression of protesters. These countries supported the mostly Sunni Muslim fighters seeking to topple Assad, who was backed by Iranian Shiite militias.

In this photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) meets with Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to Jordan Nayef al-Sadiri, in Damascus, Syria, May 11. Saudi Arabia invited Assad to attend the upcoming Arab League summit.
/ Syrian Presidency Facebook page via AP
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Syrian Presidency Facebook page via AP
In this photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) meets with Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to Jordan Nayef al-Sadiri, in Damascus, Syria, May 11. Saudi Arabia invited Assad to attend the upcoming Arab League summit.

Russia and Iran's support for Assad's government ultimately helped him stay in power. The conflict also later drew extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which the U.S. and its Mideast allies, as well as Iran, fought in air raids and on the ground.

The U.S., which maintains several hundred counterterrorism forces in Syria's northwest, has refused to restore ties with the Assad regime and publicly opposes Arab states doing so.

What's the impact of Saudi leadership of the Arab League at this year's summit?

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Sissi is accompanied by Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan upon his arrival at Jeddah airport, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, ahead of the Arab summit.
/ Saudi Press Agency via AP
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Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Sissi is accompanied by Saudi Prince Badr bin Sultan upon his arrival at Jeddah airport, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, ahead of the Arab summit.

Crown Prince Mohammed, once shunned by Western business leaders and some politicians for the kingdom's human rights record after the killing of Saudi critic and writer Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, has used the summit to cement his effort at being a mediator in multiple conflicts.

The kingdom, for example, has hosted U.S.-backed talks between Sudan's warring sides and led the evacuation effort of thousands of foreigners from the country.

Saudi Arabia's ascendancy as an economic and political powerhouse, combined with its religious significance as the birthplace of Islam, is basically unmatched in the region.

This summit also marks the most significant gathering of Arab leaders since Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic ties. That deal, brokered by China, laid the ground for Saudi Arabia's resumption of ties with Syria. It also renewed efforts to end the war in Yemen, including the release of hundreds of prisoners of war in recent weeks.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 22, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story identified Cameroon as a member of the Arab League. It should have read Comoros.
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