Arab League: Zelenskyy criticises nations who 'turn a blind eye' to Russia

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the Arab League summit on Friday. Credit: AP

Ukraine's President appeared to take a swipe at some of the gathered nations at the annual Arab League by criticising those who "turn a blind eye" to Moscow's violations, without naming them.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined leaders, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was making his first appearance for 12 years at the talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Referencing the suffering of ethnic Muslim Tatars, living under Russian occupation in Crimea, Zelenskyy said: "Unfortunately, there are some in the world, and here among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations.

"And I'm here so that everyone can take an honest look, no matter how hard the Russians try to influence. There must still be independence."

Zelenskyy, who addressed the summit in English, appeared to invoke the Arab world's own troubled history of invasion and occupation, saying their nations would understand that Ukraine "will never submit to any foreigners or colonisers."

He also took aim at Iran for supplying attack drones to Russia.

Meanwhile, al-Assad was making his first appearance at the talks in over a decade, after he was suspended for his brutal crackdown of political opponents, which has led to an ongoing civil war in Syria.

Russian airstrikes have have left a swath of destruction across both countries, but in Syria they came at al-Assad's invitation, helping him cling to power since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Several other Arab states have maintained close ties with Moscow while remaining largely neutral on its invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed both al-Assad and Zelenskyy, expressing support for "whatever helps in reducing the crisis between Russia and Ukraine."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) greets Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Credit: AP

He added that the kingdom, which brokered a prisoner-of-war exchange last year, "is ready to exert efforts for mediation between Russia and Ukraine".

The odd pairing of the two leaders in the same forum comes after Prince Salman has looked to warm relations with both countries in recent months.

Saudi Arabia has recently restored diplomatic ties with Iran and is ending the kingdom's years-long war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. Prince Salman has also led the push for Syria's return to the Arab League.

Zelenskyy's visit marked another leg in his whirlwind of international appearances, which until now had taken in mostly allied nations.

Saudi Arabia pledged $400 million (£322m) in aid to Ukraine earlier this year and has voted in favor of United Nations (UN) resolutions, calling on Russia to end its invasion and refrain from annexing Ukrainian territory.

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But it has resisted pressure from the United States to increase oil production in order to squeeze Russia's revenues.

Leaders from the 22-member league were also expected to discuss the present situation in Sudan, which has been engaged in a month-long conflict between two warring generals - both of whom have been backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

The Arab League is anticipated to reiterate its perennial support for the Palestinians at a time of soaring tensions with Israel.

Al-Assad's first official meeting on Friday was with his Tunisian counterpart, Kais Saied, who is waging his own crackdown on dissent.

"We stand together against the movement of darkness," al-Assad said, in an apparent reference to extremist groups which have come to dominate opposition forces in Syria.

Tunisian President Kais Saied (left) greets Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: AP

Despite Syria's return to the summit, not every member is in support of al-Assad's continued leadership of the country. That includes Qatar, which still supports Syria's opposition forces.

Qatar has said it will not stand in the way of the Arab consensus on readmitting Syria, but it will also not normalise bilateral relations without a political solution to the conflict.

Western powers have criticised al-Assad's return to the summit and have vowed to maintain a raft of sanctions against its leader and his regime.

Earlier this week, al-Assad was invited to attend the COP28 climate conference, which is due to be held in late 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

His invitation is likely to heighten scrutiny of the UAE, which has explained its decision by saying the event marked "a milestone opportunity for the world to come together, course correct, and drive progress towards keeping the goals and ambitions of the Paris Climate Agreement alive."

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