Assad arrived in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on Thursday for the Arab League gathering, his first since the bloc suspended Syria in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war.
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He met Tunisian President Kais Saied on Friday, Syria’s official SANA news agency said, kicking off a series of bilateral talks before the summit is expected to officially open at 2:00 pm (1100 GMT).
The summit in Saudi Arabia comes at a time when the world’s biggest oil exporter is flexing its diplomatic muscle across the Middle East and beyond. Main streets in Jeddah were lined with the flags of Arab League member states including Syria, as Al-Riyadh newspaper declared on Friday it would be “the summit of all summits”.
The meeting follows a frenetic stretch of high-stakes diplomacy triggered by the kingdom’s surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement deal with Iran announced in March. Since then, Saudi Arabia has restored bilateral ties with Syria and ramped up a push for peace in Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
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Riyadh also played a leading role in evacuating civilians from Sudan when fighting erupted there last month, and it is currently hosting representatives of Sudan’s warring parties in a bid to hammer out a ceasefire. From Riyadh’s perspective, a successful summit would involve concrete commitments from Syria on issues including war refugees and the captagon trade, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.