Ukraine’s president Vladimir Zelensky requested the Arab League’s support in condemning Russia. His need to address the oil and gas-rich Gulf nations signalled that he may have understood better than most how polarised the world is today and the importance of wooing both East and West.
Zelensky requested Arab leaders directly contact him, “without any intermediaries” he stressed, suggesting how many countries attempt a mediator role.
The equally surprising yet considerably more controversial guest was Bashar Al-Assad, possibly the world’s least popular leader and President of war-torn Syria, where many casualties were reportedly slaughtered using methods deemed inhumane, even by war time standards, by the Assad regime against his own people.
In a coordinated effort by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the move and his presence sparked objections from Washington and London, who argue that the Syrian leader has not expressed remorse for the millions of people killed and displaced by his forces since the onset of pro-democracy protests in 2011 nor is there any indication that he might change his ways.
The UAE has also extended a formal invitation for Assad to attend the UN COP28 climate change conference in Dubai in November. If he accepts, it would mark his first participation in a global summit since the beginning of the war.
Saudi Arabia has been advocating for the reinstatement of Assad in the pan-Arab body consisting of 22 nations, despite Qatar insisting relations cannot be normalised and reservations from the likes of Kuwait.
Riyadh’s argument is that the Arab world needs to pragmatically accept Assad’s survival in the Syrian civil war. They believe that engaging with Damascus is the best way to influence the outcome of his victory over time, including reducing Iran’s influence, which is Assad’s primary military supporter.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, stated, “We must find innovative approaches to address the challenges our countries face.” He aims to push for progress in ending the conflicts in Sudan and Yemen. How effective the meeting was, as with many global high-level meetings, is yet to be determined.
Several Arab countries, particularly Jordan, are eager to curb the illicit trade of the drug Captagon, which is a significant source of revenue for the Syrian regime.
Currently, there are no indications that Assad is willing to make concessions in exchange for recognition. He insists that Syria will only accept the return of refugees when Gulf states provide financial aid for the country’s reconstruction. Iran, a longstanding supporter of Assad, has already solidified its position as the regime’s closest ally.
In the Western world, there is unreserved outrage over the rehabilitation of Assad. A bipartisan congressional alliance in the United States is rushing to ensure that the Biden administration remains firm against Assad, even if it requires a rupture with Gulf states.
The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, introduced the bipartisan Assad Anti-Normalization Act, which would impose penalties on those supporting the Assad regime and its allies and prevent the US government from recognizing any government led by Assad. The bill is expected to swiftly pass through Congress.
Diplomats emphasized the need for progress towards a diplomatic solution in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This resolution, a crucial demand of the Western nations since its adoption in 2015, calls for a UN-led reconciliation process culminating in new elections.
As the new world order appears increasingly fragmented, diplomacy and forming alliances, as opposing as they may seem, is the new normal, whomever is sitting at the table. A seat at the table is what our leaders seek, no matter if that table decides very little.