Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has attended an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia to seek support for his country in the face of Russia’s invasion, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed his readiness to mediate in the war between Moscow and Kyiv.
Speaking at the event on Friday, Zelenskyy, in his trademark green military-inspired outfit, told the audience that he hoped “most of us are here for the sake of peace and justice”.
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“We do not have missiles as our enemy has. We have less air power; we do not possess numerous killer drones that Iran supplies to Russia. We do not have that much artillery, but we do stay strong because we do have truth on our side,” he said.
Zelenskyy then added that he wanted to leave “a noble call to all of you to help protect our people, including [the] Ukrainian Muslim community”.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar community, a Turkic group of Sunni Muslims indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, was also in attendance.
Zelenskyy also highlighted the importance of Ukraine’s economic and educational ties with the Arab world.
Beginning my first-ever visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral relations and Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world. Political prisoners in Crimea and temporarily occupied territories, the return of our people, Peace Formula, energy cooperation. KSA plays a…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) May 19, 2023
Zelenskyy treads new ground
The Ukrainian president has visited a number of countries since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country on February 24, 2022.
However, his visits have been largely confined to staunch allies, including several European Union states, the United Kingdom and the United States. He will also travel to Japan over the weekend to attend the G7 meeting.
His visit to Saudi Arabia marks a clear deviation from this strategy as Ukraine looks to drum up support among countries that have resisted public condemnation of Russia’s actions.
Arab states have remained largely neutral over Russia’s war on Ukraine, with many maintaining close ties to Moscow.
It was something that Zelenskyy appeared to briefly address when he said there were some among the audience who chose to “turn a blind eye” to Russia’s actions. He added that he was in Jeddah “so that everyone can take an honest look no matter how hard the Russians tried to influence”.
Saudi Arabia has maintained good relations with Russia, and the two countries have co-operated on oil production cuts through OPEC+, the Saudi-led oil producers’ alliance.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman renewed an offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, following a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Riyadh last year.
“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 in his opening speech.
Zelenskyy said, “We already have a positive experience with Saudi Arabia regarding the release of our people captured by Russia.”
Saudi Arabia also pledged $400m in aid to Ukraine earlier this year and has voted in favour of United Nations resolutions calling on Russia to end its invasion and refrain from annexing Ukrainian territory.
The Ukrainian president also mentioned the decision in 2021 to allow visa-free travel for nationals of several Arab nations as well as the thousands of Arab students enrolled in Ukrainian universities as examples of the close ties Ukraine has with the Arab world.
As the speech reached its end, Zelenskyy highlighted several of Russia’s actions, including the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant “to blackmail the world” as he encouraged the leaders to consider Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan.
In his concluding remarks, he asked the Arab League to “listen to the Crimean Tatar people, listen to the Muslims of Ukraine. May the almighty protect our soldiers”.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, heavily backed by Russia, and recently allowed to rejoin the Arab League, is also attending the summit.
Al-Assad had been shunned from the group since 2011 after a brutal crackdown on opposition protesters and the subsequent devastating war in Syria.