Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky landed in Saudi Arabia on Friday for meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and an address to the League of Arab States, holding its summit this weekend.
The visit is the first for Zelensky to the Mideast ally since Russia, which also enjoys friendly ties to Riyadh, announced a “special operation” to oust the Ukrainian in February 2022, an ongoing invasion that began in 2014 and expanded Russia’s colonization of parts of eastern Ukraine. Zelensky has remained in power largely through large supplies of weapons and humanitarian aid from the West, but he has also succeeded in convincing Mideast and Asian states to support efforts to help Ukrainian civilians.
Saudi Arabia’s leadership has involved itself as a mediator in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, brokering a prisoner exchange last year. The Middle East has not embraced the Ukrainian cause as enthusiastically as Western Europe or East Asia, however, as several of Russia’s top allies, most prominently Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, are located there.
Assad arrived in Jeddah on Friday for his first attendance at the Arab League Summit in 12 years, having been suspended from the coalition as a result of human rights abuses during the Syrian Civil War. Assad won that war largely with support from Russia and despite American support for Syrian rebel groups – a disastrous effort that resulted in “only four or five” individuals with U.S. training fighting the Islamic State by 2015. Two years later, reports revealed the discovery of U.S. weapons in Islamic State arsenals.
Assad received an embrace from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Arab League Summit on Friday:
#BREAKING: Syria’s Assad, MbS kiss & shake hands as Assad arrives to the Arab League summit – via @reuters pic.twitter.com/2YBDoF9mzk
— Maya Gebeily (@GebeilyM) May 19, 2023
Following his stop in Saudi Arabia, Zelensky is expected to travel to Japan – his further trip away from home since the “special operation” began – for this weekend’s G7 summit in Hiroshima.
“I have arrived in Saudi Arabia. I will speak at the Summit of the League of Arab States. I will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and hold other bilateral talks,” Zelensky wrote in a message on his social media platforms on Friday.
Zelensky reportedly flew into the Saudi city of Jeddah, which is hosting the Arab League Summit expected to begin Friday.
The Ukrainian president noted that his stop in Saudi Arabia was his first-ever visit to the country, which was not a diplomatic priority for Ukraine before the war, and that he would discuss a variety of issues related to the Russian invasion, including “political prisoners” in occupied Crimea and the Ukrainian “peace formula,” Zelensky’s blueprint for ending the invasion that begins with “punishment” of Russian war criminals and political leaders.
“Beginning my first-ever visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world,” Zelensky asserted. “Political prisoners in Crimea and temporarily occupied territories, the return of our people, Peace Formula, energy cooperation. KSA plays a significant role and we are ready to take our cooperation to a new level”:
Beginning my first-ever visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world. Political prisoners in Crimea and temporarily occupied territories, the return of our people, Peace Formula, energy cooperation. KSA plays a…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) May 19, 2023
Crimea is home to a sizeable population of Tatar Muslims, whose fate under Russian occupation, Zelensky said, would be important to discuss with Arab League states.
“Another priority is the protection of the Muslim community of Ukraine. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, is together with us,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram, according to the state outlet Ukrinform. “Crimea was the first to suffer from the Russian occupation, and most of those facing repression in the occupied Crimea are Muslims.”
Zelensky did not indicate that he would discuss Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Russia in his talks with the crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman has carefully walked the line between the two rivals, aiding both such that neither has publicly criticized Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and Russia are both part of the oil cartel OPEC+, which dramatically cut production by two million barrels per day last year, prompting the administration of leftist President Joe Biden to condemn Saudi Arabia for allegedly aiding Russia. Cutting production raises oil prices, aiding the sanctioned Russian oil industry.
“Look, it’s clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia with today’s announcement,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused in early October.
Zelensky responded almost immediately by issuing a public statement praising Saudi Arabia, a subtle rebuke of Biden’s accusations that Saudi Arabia was aiding the Russian invasion of his country.
“Spoke to Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. Thanked for supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, resolution at the UN General Assembly,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter at the time. “We agreed to interact in the release of [Ukrainian] prisoners of war. We agreed on the provision of [Saudi] macro-financial aid to Ukraine.”
Saudi Arabia has since reportedly increased its purchases of Russian oil. European and American sanctions on the Russian oil industry have significantly suppressed its price, so Riyadh has been buying large amounts of Russian oil for domestic consumption, then selling the more expensive Saudi product abroad for profit. The Saudi state oil company Aramco announced in March that it had raked in record profits in 2022 upwards of $161 billion. Aramco explained the profits were “predominantly due to the impact of higher crude oil prices and volumes sold, and stronger refining margins.”
Prior to that announcement, Saudi Arabia had committed to a $400 million donation to Ukraine, $300 million worth of oil, and $100 million in humanitarian aid.
Biden administration officials softened their criticism of Saudi Arabia following Zelensky’s defense.
“The Saudis supported the important resolutions at the United Nations condemning Russia’s aggression, particularly the resolution that went forward at the General Assembly condemning the purported annexations of Ukrainian territory,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in late October. “We’ve also seen the Saudis come forward with about $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. So these are positive developments. They don’t compensate [for] the decision made by OPEC+ on production, but we take note of that.”
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