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UN General Assembly 2023: What world leaders said about Middle East on day one

UN gathering comes amid a time of rising divisions in world body, with developing countries stepping up demands for increased attention
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the UN General Assembly on 19 September 2023.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the UN General Assembly on 19 September 2023 (AFP)

World leaders kicked off the 78th United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City at UN headquarters, with only one member of the Security Council - the United States - in attendance.

The international body has become increasingly divided in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, and the theme of this year's gathering is: "Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity".

Several major disasters across the Middle East this year, including earthquakes in Turkey and Morocco and a flood in Libya, have brought the issue of natural disasters and the threat of climate change to the forefront of the General Assembly.

The world gathering, which has brought together the leaders of more than 140 nations, is likely to see greater demands from developing countries, which in recent years have been calling for increased attention. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consistently repeated the slogan: "The world is bigger than five," in reference to the shortcomings of the Security Council.

Here is what world leaders said about the Middle East during the first day:

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United States

US President Joe Biden spoke second on the first day of the plenary session at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, while at last year's meeting, he addressed the world leaders on the second day. Brazil spoke first and has done so since the 10th UNGA in 1955.

During his speech, Biden followed up on the recent announcement at the G20 about an India-Middle East Corridor, which is being touted as a rival to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

"Through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, we'll spur opportunities for investment across two continents," Biden said.

"This is part of our effort to build a more sustainable integrated Middle East and demonstrates how Israel's greater normalisation and economic connection with its neighbours is delivering positive and practical impacts," he said, noting that the US still is still committed to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beyond this, the US president made little reference to the Middle East, a region in which the US has been militarily involved for the past two decades.

The speech, which was under 30 minutes, highlights the Biden administration's apparent departure from focusing on the Middle East and onto its two adversaries, China and Russia.

During his speech, Biden also touted support for the expansion of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which currently includes the US, UK, France, China, and Russia.


King Abdullah II of Jordan delivered a brief address to the General Assembly, opting to not go over the 15-minute allotted time.

His speech focused primarily on two issues: the Syrian refugee crisis and Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The Jordanian monarch made an impassioned plea to the world body to do more to deal with the issues, adding that Amman cannot handle any more refugees coming into the country.

"We have been carefully managing to combine our limited resources with essential support from the international community," he said.

"Today, Jordan's capacity to deliver necessary services to refugees has surpassed our limits."

Jordan hosts one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world per capita, with two million Palestinian refugees and more than one million refugees who fled the war in Syria. Jordan has also been making outreach efforts to Syria, as Damascus has been looking to return to the Arab fold.

Abdullah further called on countries around the world to increase their support for the Palestinian people and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid a US push to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

"Without clarity on where Palestinians' future lies, it will be impossible to converge on a political solution to this conflict," King Abdullah said.

"We can see the Israeli people actively defending and engaging in the expression of their national identity. Yet the Palestinian people are deprived of that same right to express and fulfil their own national identity."


Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was more loquacious at the podium, delivering a wide-ranging speech that touched on relations with Iraq and Syria, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Caucasus. 

Erdogan began his address with a call for reforms at the UN based on his slogan that "the world is bigger than five".

Turkey, along with rising powers like India, has called for the UN to reform its decision-making process and turn the UN Security Council - which currently has five permanent members (Russia, the US, China, France, and the UK) - into a rotational body. 

"The institutions established after the Second World War no longer reflect today’s world," Erdogan said. "The security council has ceased to be the guarantor of world security and has become a battleground for the political strategies of only five countries." 

Turkey has positioned itself as a mediator on the world stage and is one of the only Nato members to maintain an open channel of communication with Moscow. Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Russia's southern coastal city of Sochi ahead of the General Assembly. 

Erdogan pledged to step up his diplomatic activities to push for an end to the war in Ukraine. 

"We have been endeavouring to keep both our Russian and Ukrainian friends around the table with a thesis that war will have no winners and peace will have no losers." 

Turkey helped broker a UN-backed agreement to export Ukrainian and Russian grain through the Black Sea. Erdogan said it allowed for the delivery of 33 million tons of grain to global markets before the deal collapsed this summer. 

Erdogan said that Turkey would continue to encourage the return of refugees to Syria in settlements it is building across its southern border. 

Relations between the US and Turkey have come under strain in Syria as a result of Washington's ties to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The US has backed the group as an ally against the Islamic State militant group, but Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the PKK, which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organisation. 

Erdogan took a veiled swipe at US support for the SDF saying: "The biggest threat to Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity is the support given to terrorist organisations guided by the powers that have designs on this country”

Turkey is pursuing a rail and road transit project with Iraq, as the US floats its own project through the Gulf states, Israel and Jordan. Erdogan said his government aimed to strengthen "Iraq’s political unity, territorial integrity and reconstruction efforts." 

But those ambitions could be challenged by Turkey's operations against Kurdish fighters on Iraqi soil. 

On Tuesday, Iraq's president, Abdel Latif Rashid, slammed Turkey's "repeated attacks" in the country, a day after a drone strike on a northern air field killed three Kurdish counterterrorism officers.

Erdogan talks Caucasus and Cyprus

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has been working to de-escalate tensions with neighbouring Greece.

One potential irritant to those efforts could be the ethnically divided island of Cyprus, where Turkish Cypriot security forces assaulted UN peacekeepers in August, although tensions have cooled recently.

Erdogan said the UN mission had become "discredited" and urged UN member states to recognise the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. 

Erdogan took to the podium as another close regional ally, Azerbaijan, launched a military operation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, risking a return to the bloody 2020 war with Armenia. 

Turkey is a historic ally of Azerbaijan and views Armenia as one of its main regional rivals.

Erdogan said his government was "aiming at good neighbourly relations” with Armenia, but said Yerevan was not "not taking the utmost opportunity of this historic chance". 

Later in the day, he made an online statement in response to the military operation saying: "We support the steps taken by Azerbaijan - with whom we act together with the motto of one nation, two states - to defend its territorial integrity". 

Erdogan also reiterated Turkish support for the Palestinians and his government's efforts to protect the historic status of Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

He also said developed countries "are suffering from racism along with xenophobia and Islamophobia as if it were a plague", adding that attacks on Islam had reached "intolerable levels". 


The ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, made the desecration of the Quran in countries like Sweden a major theme of his address. 

“I would like to tell my Muslim brethren we shouldn’t fall prey to any idiot or mentally sick person who provokes us by burning the Quran," Thani said at the UN podium, even as he challenged those who defend Quran burning as an expression of free speech.

"To all those who justify those ugly and hideous acts as freedom of expression…compromising the sanctity of others should not be seen as a symbol of freedom of expression.”

Thani also focused his remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying it is "unacceptable for the Palestinian people to continue to languish under the yoke…of the Israeli occupation".

Thani also slammed the international community for its "conspicuous inaction" against Israel, saying the lack of response to Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip undermined the two-state solution.

"The occupation has become tantamount to a brazen and conspicuous apartheid system in the 21st century," he said. 

At a time when the US is courting Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel, Thani cautioned against outreach, saying that Israel had responded to Arab peace and normalisation initiatives with more nationalist and ultra-orthodox policies "reflected in government coalitions and further settlement expansion in addition to the 'Judiasation' of Jerusalem". 

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