Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman is playing a risky game with Assad and the West
Middle East and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
On May 19, 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) hosted the 32nd Arab League Summit. The regional organisation adopted the Jeddah Declaration that reaffirmed the need for unity to achieve security and stability. The main themes of peace and cooperation guided the Summit despite the participation of Bashar al-Assad who rejoined the Arab League earlier this month.
The Jeddah Declaration discusses key conflicts in the region:
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the importance of “activating the Arab Peace Initiative”,
- The recent developments in Sudan and the rejection of “foreign interference that inflame the conflict”,
- The Yemen war and the regional efforts to reach a political solution,
- The situation in Lebanon and the efforts to elect a president, form a cabinet and carry out economic reforms to overcome the current crisis. 
The Declaration covers the key conflict areas of the region with priority given to diplomatic settlements and long-term initiatives within the organisation. However, the Declaration compiles a mix of political statements instead of proposing a clear roadmap for the peace initiatives that the Arab League will lead.
Moreover, Assad’s participation in the Summit seems incompatible with Zelenskyy’s surprise appearance on his way to the G7 Summit in Japan. Prince MbS has been maintaining strong ties with Moscow as part of the OPEC+ initiative over oil production and has benefited heavily from the West’s search for alternatives to Russian energy sources.  Many Arab nations have also generally displayed ambivalence to the plight of Ukraine. Indeed, Assad owes his political survival to Russia, which intervened in the Syrian war and carried out brutal bombing campaigns against opposition forces.  Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is now fighting in Ukraine, was also active in Syria and has been instrumental in Assad’s survival over the past decade, therefore Assad has also been critical for Russia to secure an influence zone in the Middle East.
At the Summit, it became even more overt that MbS is desperately trying to use Saudi Arabia’s influence as a leader in the Arab and Islamic world to persuade the Arab League states to compromise with Syria. Saudi Arabia is leaning towards the West with its support for Ukraine while also being strategic with Syria’s authoritarian regime. This proves to be a risky game as the two may prove incompatible. Indeed, Assad has praised Moscow for invading Ukraine and justified it as a ‘correction of history’.  Although MbS positions Saudi Arabia as a power pushing towards responsible adherence to international law, norms, sovereignty, and diplomacy, standing as the champion of cooperation remains precarious in the long run when one plays both sides of the fence.
Sources and further readings:
 Qatar News Agency. ‘Jeddah Declaration: Arab Leaders Stress Centrality of Palestinian Cause, Call for Strengthening Arab Action.’ (19 May 2023). <https://www.qna.org.qa/en/News-Area/News/2023-05/19/0032-jeddah-declaration-arab-leaders-stress-centrality-of-palestinian-cause,-call-for-strengthening-arab-action#:~:text=We%20reaffirm%20the%20need%20to,threaten%20regional%20peace%20and%20security.> accessed 31 May 2023.
 Observer Research Foundation. ‘The Arab League Summit: Saudi Arabia projects authority by hosting Syria and Ukraine.’ (19 May 2023). <https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-arab-league-summit/> accessed 31 May 2023.
 The Washington Post. ‘Zelensky, on surprise Saudi visit, seeks Arab League support in war.’ (19 May 2023). <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/05/19/zelensky-arab-league-saudi-arabia-speech/> accessed 31 May 2023.
 AlJazeera. ‘ ‘Correction of history’: Syria president praises Ukraine invasion.’ (25 February 2022). <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/25/syrias-assad-praises-russias-ukraine-invasion-as-correction#:~:text=Al%2DAssad%20told%20Putin%20on,the%20Syrian%20leader%20as%20saying> accessed 1 June 2023.
Al Jazeera. ‘Analysis: How important is Syria’s return to the Arab League?’ (19 May 2023). <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/19/analysis-how-important-is-syrias-return-to-the-arab-league> accessed 31 May 2023.
Al Arabiya. ‘Arab League concludes summit, adopts Jeddah Declaration.’ (19 May 2023). <https://english.alarabiya.net/News/saudi-arabia/2023/05/19/Arab-League-concludes-summit-adopts-Jeddah-Declaration-> accessed 31 May 2023.
The Guardian. ‘Syria’s Assad to attend Arab League summit as west opposes rehabilitation.’ (18 May 2023). <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/18/syria-assad-attend-arab-league-west-opposes-rehabilitation> accessed 31 May 2023.
Al Arabiya. ‘Saudi technical team arrives in Syria to discuss reopening of embassy.’ (27 May 2023). <https://english.alarabiya.net/News/saudi-arabia/2023/05/27/Saudi-technical-team-arrives-in-Syria-to-discuss-reopening-of-embassy> accessed 31 May 2023.