Zelensky, on surprise Saudi Arabia visit, seeks Arab League support in war

In a surprise personal appearance at an Arab League meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday delivered an emotional appeal for support from leaders who have voiced only muted criticism of Russia’s invasion and from some, like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have maintained strong ties to Moscow despite the war.

Zelensky, who has repeatedly used his personal charisma to build global support for Ukraine’s defense and obtain billions of dollars in weapons from the West, sought to make common cause with countries that have experienced their own years of violent strife as he pleaded for stronger condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

“Look at how much suffering the long-term wars have brought to Libya, Syria, Yemen; how many lives have been wasted by years of fighting in Sudan and Somalia, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Zelensky said, speaking in English. “Everyone who adds to suffering by his new aggressions, everyone who sows enmity, everyone who wants to bring back the old days of invading … every aggressor … will be cursed by the people.”

“I greet everyone who is ready to join us on the path to justice,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an emotional appeal for support from Arab leaders on a visit to Saudi Arabia on May 19. (Video: Reuters)

As in many of his public speeches, Zelensky carefully tailored his message to his audience, mentioning most countries by name and appealing to both Muslim unity and anti-imperialism. In particular, he returned repeatedly to the plight of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar population, which he described as “the center of Muslim culture in Ukraine.”

“For centuries the Crimean Tatars have been, and should remain, an integral and strong part of the Muslim community of the world, but Crimea was the first to suffer from the Russian occupation, and until now most of those who are subjected to repression in the occupied Crimea are Muslims,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

“I believe that one day your people will come back also to see our Crimea — Ukrainian Crimea free from Russian occupation and humiliation,” he said.

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Friday’s Arab League meeting was particularly notable for the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was attending for the first time since being suspended from the regional group 12 years ago. Assad was ostracized by many fellow leaders after his violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators triggered a brutal civil war in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

Assad owes his political survival to Russia, which intervened in the war and carried out brutal bombing campaigns against anti-government forces. Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is now fighting in Ukraine, was also active in Syria.

So it was striking that Assad, who presided over the flattening of cities in his own country, appeared in the same room with Zelensky, some of whose cities have been practically obliterated by relentless Russian bombing.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has maintained strong ties with Russia, particularly over oil production, and has benefited heavily from the West’s search for alternatives to Russian energy sources.

Zelensky, however, noted Saudi Arabia’s assistance in negotiating prisoner exchanges and said he hoped that all leaders present would support efforts to free such captives.

“We can expand this experience,” he said, “and even if there are people here at the summit who have a different view of the war on our land, calling it a conflict, I think we can all be united in saving people from the cages of Russian prisons.”

“Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,” he continued, “and I am here so that everyone can take an honest look no matter how hard the Russians try to influence.”

Zelensky emphasized Ukraine’s other ties to Arab nations. He cited tourists from Persian Gulf states who visited Ukraine before the war and the “education of tens of thousands of Arab students in our universities every year.” He also noted Ukraine’s role as an agricultural supplier in providing wheat to the region, notably to countries such as Lebanon and Egypt that were directly threatened by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea until a deal was implemented last year.

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Most of the countries represented at the summit voted in favor of United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a violation of the U.N. Charter, which calls for respect of each nation’s territorial sovereignty. But many Arab nations have generally displayed ambivalence to the plight of Ukraine.

Zelensky, clearly aiming to stir empathy, made repeated references in his speech to anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism in an unequivocal moral appeal to the region’s leaders and their own histories.

“Anyone who defends his native land from invaders, and anyone who defends children of his nation from enslavement — every such warrior is on the path of justice, and I am proud to represent such warriors,” he said.

“I am more than sure that none of you will agree to surrender a third of your country to the invaders,” Zelensky said. Then, referring to the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Putin on war crimes charges, he added: “I am more than sure that none of you would watch without a fight how foreigners steal the children of your people. Hundreds of thousands of our children are deported to Russia, separated from their relatives.”

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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