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Zelensky arrives in Saudi Arabia to attend Arab League summit

Ukrainian president joins summit, which will also be attended by Syria's Bashar al-Assad for the first time in over a decade
Ukraine's President Zelensky welcomes Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Kyiv on 26 February 2023 (AFP)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Kyiv on 26 February 2023 (AFP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday to attend the Arab League summit, according to a Saudi-owned broadcaster. 

He touched down in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on a French government plane, Al-Hadath TV reported. 

"Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plays a significant role and we are ready to take our cooperation to a new level," he tweeted after arrival.

Zelensky said that during the summit he would discuss Ukraine’s peace formula for ending the war, the protection of Muslims in Ukraine, and the return of political prisoners from the Russia-annexed Crimea region.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year, several Middle Eastern countries have become an economic lifeline for Kremlin amid western sanctions and isolation, while officially remaining neutral.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been welcomed in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Jordan since the war began.

In September, Russia and Ukraine carried out a major prison swap involving nearly 300 people, following mediation efforts by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

At the time, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in brokering an agreement to fly 10 foreign nationals who had been captured by Russian forces in Ukraine to the Gulf kingdom. 

Zelensky said that he would meet Mohammed bin Salman later on Friday.

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Riyadh voted to condemn Moscow's annexations of Ukrainian territory in a UN resolution in October, and pledged $400m in humanitarian aid to Kyiv. 

One of the countries to vote against that UN resolution was Syria, Russia's closest ally in the Arab League. 

On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Jeddah to attend the summit for the first time since civil war broke out in 2011. Arab foreign ministers voted on 7 May to re-admit Damascus, consolidating a regional push towards normalisation.

Syria's membership in the Arab League was suspended in November 2011 following a violent crackdown on street protests by government forces in the wake of the pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world. 

Russia's military intervention in Syria in September 2015 was crucial in turning the tide for Assad and giving him the upper hand in the conflict after his forces had lost large areas of territory to rebels and militant groups.

Saudi Arabia resisted restoring relations with Assad for years but said after its recent rapprochement with Iran - Syria's key regional ally - that a new approach was needed with Damascus. 

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