Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been on a whirlwind of foreign visits in recent weeks to shore up diplomatic support for Kyiv’s fight against Russia’s invasion. Last week, he landed in the Saudi city of Jeddah in a previously unannounced visit to attend an Arab League summit and try to broaden support beyond his Western partners.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago, Kyiv has failed to garner substantial backing from Arab states, which have largely remained neutral. Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing Gulf nations have maintained warm ties with the Kremlin.
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Although most Arab governments have voted to condemn Moscow’s invasion at the United Nations, these states, in line with much of the Global South, have generally avoided taking sides.
Most Arab League members have called for a diplomatic settlement, and none has taken any action against Russia, such as economic sanctions, that might antagonise Moscow.
For the most part, Arab officials have viewed this war as a European crisis to be handled by Western nations and Russia. Conflicts and turmoil within the Arab world – such as in Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Israel and Palestine – are of much greater concern to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states than the Ukraine war.
A ‘rare tour de force’
In Zelenskyy’s address to the Arab League, he accused some of its members of deciding to “turn a blind eye” to Russia’s war against Ukraine while also expressing his belief that “we can all be united in saving people from the cages of Russian prisons.”
Joseph A Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told Al Jazeera that “independent Arab commentators were impressed by the Ukrainian president’s bold statements, especially when he called on Arabs to ‘reflect on their ties with Russia’.”
Kéchichian called it a “rare tour de force” in which Zelenskyy promised higher levels of Arab-Ukrainian cooperation in the future. For years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states have maintained important ties with Ukraine across multiple fields, such as wheat imports, energy, non-oil trade and tourism.
This year, Saudi Arabia announced $400m in aid for Ukraine, including a $300m grant in oil derivatives.
Zelenskyy took the opportunity to thank Riyadh for its role in arranging the exchange of political prisoners with Russia in September. The Ukrainian head of state also invited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, to Kyiv.
Zelenskyy appealed to his audience at the Arab League summit in ways that were like his address at the Doha Forum in March 2022 when he talked about the plight of the Muslim minority in Russian-occupied Crimea.
He again focused on the Ukrainian Muslims in Crimea, seeking to connect his nation’s struggle to wider Islamic sensitivities. The Crimean Peninsula is the ancestral homeland of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic group of Sunni Muslims.
By describing Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression as being about fighting “occupation” and “colonisers” in pursuit of “justice”, Zelenskyy used language that sits well with Arabs and audiences across the Global South more broadly.
However, some commentators on social media were quick to criticise Zelenskyy for not mentioning the Israeli occupation of Palestine in his address at the Arab League summit.
It is not clear if Zelenskyy’s speech will do anything to shift any of the Arab states’ stances towards the conflict in Ukraine. Some experts argue that a change in tack is somewhat doubtful given geopolitical realities of a more multipolar world in which Riyadh and other Arab capitals increasingly value their expanding partnerships with Moscow.
“I think that for Zelenskyy this was a really great opportunity to try and spotlight Ukraine’s ongoing struggle against Russian intervention,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the power vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
“Whether that will be successful, I’m not necessarily sure, particularly given Saudi Arabia’s proclivity recently to aligning with other great powers outside the West, particularly with China and Russia,” she said.
Important optics for Saudi Arabia
Experts say the hosting of the Ukrainian leader was also aimed at warding off Western criticism of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Some officials in the United States have accused Riyadh of helping fund Russia’s war against Ukraine due to its crude production cut that sent oil prices soaring. Saudi-led OPEC’s cooperation with Russia has received harsh criticism from many in Washington.
Having Zelenskyy address the Arab League must be understood as part of a Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council effort to reinforce that the Arab states are balanced between Moscow and Kyiv.
On May 19, MBS renewed an offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.
“We reaffirm the kingdom’s readiness to continue mediating efforts between Russia and Ukraine and to support all international efforts aimed at resolving the crisis politically in a way that contributes to achieving security,” the crown prince said.
There’s also the Syrian factor, experts said.
“Inviting Zelenskyy helped mitigate some of the other controversial elements of the summit – for example, the invitation of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, which was of course extremely sensitive given the context of normalisation,” Rose said.
Citing human rights abuses and the lack of a political solution to Syria’s conflict, the West has voiced its opposition to Arab governments’ rapprochements with Damascus.
Saudi diplomacy picks up speed
With MBS at the helm, Saudi Arabia is increasingly keen to position Riyadh as the leader of the Arab world and a diplomatic heavyweight on the international stage.
By entering a new era of détente with arch foe Iran this year, moving towards a peace deal with Yemen’s Houthi rebels and reconciling with the Syrian government, Saudi Arabia has opted for more diplomatic engagement and less confrontation in the kingdom’s foreign policy. Riyadh has also played a leading diplomatic role in the conflict in Sudan that erupted last month.
Although MBS’s alleged role in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul made him relatively isolated on the international stage, he entered his post-Khashoggi rehabilitation period last year.
The situation in Ukraine has enabled the Saudi leader to stress Riyadh’s role in helping European nations cope with energy challenges by diverting more crude oil to those countries.
In the process, MBS has gained significantly higher levels of confidence, reflected by his increasingly assertive foreign policy decisions on regional and international levels. The extent to which MBS has been fostering closer ties with Washington’s top geopolitical rivals and foes – China and Russia – while taking steps to bring Syria’s government in from the diplomatic wilderness speaks to this assertive foreign policy.
This month’s Arab League summit should strengthen the de facto Saudi ruler’s “clout in the region” and “burnish MBS’s credentials” as a leader in the Arab world, Patrick Theros, the former US ambassador to Qatar, told Al Jazeera.