President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine implored Arab leaders meeting in Saudi Arabia on Friday not to bend to Russian influence, as he continued a diplomatic tour to build international support ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Mr. Zelensky made a surprise visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the annual Arab League summit, where he addressed countries that have maintained warm relations with Russia. In his speech, Mr. Zelensky appealed to the rulers — some of whom have overseen massacres and filled prisons with opponents — to help save Ukrainians “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 said. “I am here so that everyone can take an honest look, no matter how hard the Russians try to influence.”
His remarks seemed especially pointed given that for the first time in more than a decade, the Arab leaders were welcoming back to the fold Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who relied heavily on Russian military support to wage war against his own people. He had largely been shunned, regionally and internationally, since 2011, when he began violently suppressing Syria’s Arab Spring uprising, using chemical weapons against his own people at some points in a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.
Despite pressure from the United States, many Arab states have avoided taking sides since Moscow invaded Ukraine nearly 15 months ago, saying that they do not want to be dragged into a competition between superpowers and must be able to pursue their own interests.
Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a wartime harbor for wealthy Russians, while the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, hosted a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States late last year.
Saudi officials have attempted to maintain good relations with both parties in the conflict. They pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine even as they coordinated with Russia and other oil producers in the OPEC Plus cartel to bolster energy prices, angering American officials.
“All Arab countries have excellent relations with Ukraine that predate this crisis, and likewise we are eager to preserve our relationships with Russia,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said during a news conference after the summit. “There is a war that we have to find a way to end, and that won’t happen without being open to hearing all parties and all voices.”
Mr. Zelensky was invited to the summit by Saudi Arabia, where he met with the kingdom’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — often referred to by his initials, M.B.S. — and thanked him for his support. The Ukrainian leader is scheduled to appear at the Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend to seek further commitments for arms and aid from the world’s wealthiest democracies, amid a flurry of trips to build support ahead of the expected counteroffensive.
The invitation came at a time when Prince Mohammed, 37, is carving out a new role for himself on the global stage, portraying himself as a bridge-builder and mediator. When the prince began his rise to power in 2015, he pursued an aggressive foreign policy, including a disastrous military intervention in neighboring Yemen that has contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
But his approach has shifted toward de-escalating conflicts over the past few years, as he focuses on his plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy.
In March, the Saudi government announced it would re-establish diplomatic relations with its longtime rival, Iran, and this month Saudi officials hosted talks between warring parties in Sudan.
“M.B.S. is determined to return Saudi Arabia to regional and even global leadership — to be at the center of it all,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The Saudis have a hand in everything at the moment.”
The flurry of diplomacy underlines Prince Mohammed’s efforts to cement the kingdom’s position as a rising power, forging greater independence from the United States, its longtime security guarantor.
Addressing the leaders on Friday, Prince Mohammed told Saudi Arabia’s “friends in the West and the East” that the kingdom is focused on peace. He said it was committed to easing Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis and is “ready to continue to exert mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine.”
To Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, Mr. Zelensky’s arrival carried multiple messages. One is potentially for Russia: “Enough is enough. Stop the war,” he said. At the same time, Gulf countries want their American and European allies to know that “our balanced position on the war between Russia and Ukraine does not mean we are siding with Russia,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky said that another priority for his meetings with Arab leaders was to discuss the security of Ukrainian Muslims, including Crimean Tatars, a long marginalized group whose homeland Russia has occupied since 2014. It was an example of how Mr. Zelensky has sought to tailor his messages to foreign audiences during the war.
“Look at how much suffering the long-term wars have brought to Libya, Syria, Yemen,” he said. “How many lives have been wasted by years of fighting in Sudan and Somalia, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mr. Zelensky’s appearance also swiftly sucked attention away from the gathering’s most controversial guest, Mr. al-Assad.
Russian military support was key to Mr. al-Assad’s survival in Syria’s civil war, and Russian forces used tactics in Syria, including strikes against civilian targets, that they have since employed in Ukraine.
Mr. al-Assad appeared to receive a warm welcome on Friday, when Saudi state television showed Prince Mohammed greeting him with kisses on the cheek. When the prince began his rise to power in 2015, Syria’s war was still raging and Saudi Arabia had cut its diplomatic relations with Mr. al-Assad, throwing its support behind some of the rebels fighting him.
Yet earlier this month, Saudi Arabia re-established diplomatic ties with Syria and the Arab League voted to readmit the country, formalizing Mr. al-Assad’s reintegration into the region.
Arab officials who supported his return argued that ostracizing him accomplished little, and that at least this way, they can hope to influence developments in Syria that affect the whole region, like the cross-border flow of illicit drugs and the fate of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.
“The status quo was not sustainable,” Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said. “We care about finding practical and realistic solutions, and this won’t happen except by cooperating and partnering with the government in Damascus.”
In his speech, Prince Mohammed said he was pleased Mr. al-Assad had been welcomed back to the league.
“We hope that will contribute to support the stability of Syria and for things to return to normal,” he said.
Mr. al-Assad’s regional comeback has drawn criticism widely, including from Syrians opposed to his rule and a group of American congressmen, who introduced a bill called the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. Many people in the Middle East are also uncomfortable with the idea of re-legitimizing a leader accused of war crimes.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar — which openly opposes normalizing relations with Syria — left the summit on Friday without speaking, in what appeared to be a protest against Mr. al-Assad’s presence.
When his own turn came to speak, Mr. al-Assad used his few minutes to castigate the “domination of the West, devoid of principles, morals, friends and partners.” The emergence of a multipolar world is “a historic opportunity to rearrange our affairs with the least amount of foreign intervention,” he said.
“The most important thing is to leave the internal issues to their people, as they are able to manage their issues,” he said.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Raja Abdulrahim from Jerusalem and Vivian Yee from Cairo.