Assad caps return to Arab fold at Saudi-hosted summit

Arab leaders welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold Friday at a summit in Saudi Arabia that is also expected to confront conflicts across the Middle East and beyond.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also travelled to the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah for a meeting of the 22-member Arab League, highlighting host Saudi Arabia's desire to wield global diplomatic clout.

Assad landed in Jeddah on Thursday for the gathering, his first since the bloc suspended Syria in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war.

Before the opening ceremony Friday afternoon, he kicked off what was expected to be a series of bilateral meetings, sitting down with Tunisia's president and the vice president of the United Arab Emirates.

As leaders walked into the main hall, Assad exchanged greetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"I would like to loudly welcome Syria back to its seat among its brothers," Algerian prime minister Ayman Benabderrahmane said in the opening speech of the summit.

Main streets in Jeddah were lined with the flags of Arab League member states including Syria, as Al-Riyadh newspaper declared on Friday it would be "the summit of all summits".

The embrace of Assad was a marked departure for Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian opposition and supported rebel groups during earlier stages of Syria's war and accused Assad, a staunch Iran ally, of operating a "killing machine".

The meeting follows a frenetic stretch of high-stakes diplomacy triggered by the kingdom's surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement deal with Iran announced in March.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has restored bilateral ties with Syria and ramped up a push for peace in Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

Riyadh also played a leading role in evacuating civilians from Sudan when fighting erupted there last month, and it is currently hosting representatives of Sudan's warring parties in a bid to hammer out a ceasefire.

- 'Low bar' -

Not every country in the region has been eager to mend ties with Assad.

Qatar said this month it would not normalise relations with Assad's government but noted this would not be "an obstacle" to Arab League reintegration.

On Thursday, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, a fierce critic of the Syrian leader, announced he would lead his country's delegation to Jeddah.

The president of another Gulf state, the United Arab Emirates, was a notable no-show.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan has sent his brother and vice president, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, to Jeddah instead, official news agency WAM said.

From Riyadh's perspective, a successful summit would involve concrete commitments from Syria on issues including war refugees and the captagon trade, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Yet Arab League summits "have more often than not been characterised by internal disagreement and indecisiveness," he added.

"The bar for success will therefore be low."

- Global challenges -

In addition to challenges facing the Middle East, the Arab League summit should also take on issues like the war in Ukraine and "the global economic crisis", Khaled Manzlawiy, the bloc's assistant secretary general for political affairs, wrote on Wednesday in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Zelensky's surprise visit is his first to the Middle East since Moscow's invasion in February 2022, giving the Ukrainian leader an opportunity to address leaders of a region who have been far less united in their support of Kyiv than staunch Western allies.

Dressed in his trademark fatigues, Zelensky disembarked in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, where he was greeted by Ukraine's ambassador and Saudi officials, according to footage broadcast by Saudi state-affiliated channel Al-Ekhbariya.

An Arab League official told AFP Zelenky's invitation came from Saudi Arabia, not the bloc. Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A representative of the Russian embassy will also attend the summit, according to a Saudi official.

Zelensky said his priorities for the visit would be "the presentation of our peace formula whose implementation should involve as many states as possible".

Another priority, he wrote on social media, was "the protection of Ukraine's Muslim community" in the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as relatively neutral on the war in Ukraine.

While pledging hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Ukraine and backing UN Security Council resolutions denouncing Russia's invasion, it has also coordinated closely with Russia on energy policy, earning a rebuke from Washington last year.

Earlier this year, a Saudi official told journalists that Riyadh remained open to contributing to mediation to end the conflict, especially "on important minor issues that may help cumulatively in the end to have a political solution of the whole issue".