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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making an appearance at the G-7 meeting in Japan, either in person or virtually - that part is still unclear.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

What is clear is that as Ukraine prepares for its counteroffensive against Russia, Zelenskyy is making effort to rally support from the world's wealthiest nations. Host nation Japan is also trying to forge consensus among the leaders on issues that include nuclear weapons and China's more aggressive policies.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Hiroshima and joins us for an update.

Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so we're getting mixed messages on whether Zelenskyy is going to be there in person or virtually. But what does he expect to get out of his appearance in front of G-7 leaders?

KUHN: Well, as you said, it's a bit unclear. The head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council told National TV that Zelenskyy needs to be here in Hiroshima because important decisions will be made. But Zelenskyy's office says he will attend virtually. Japan's government hasn't confirmed either option. But at any rate, G-7 meetings leading up to today's summit have already seen officials recommit to supporting Ukraine militarily and financially for as long as it takes. We don't know how long it could take. We don't know whether this aid will prove decisive on the battlefield. Certainly, if Zelenskyy makes Japan his first trip to Asia since Russia's invasion, that would certainly be a good optic for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who's trying to show leadership on Ukraine.

FADEL: Now, Japan is also trying to craft a united approach to China. What does that look like?

KUHN: Well, Prime Minister Kishida is emphasizing that China must act responsibly and not try to change the status quo, such as on Taiwan, by force. But like the Biden administration, Tokyo also wants to engage with Beijing. I spoke to Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs Noriyuki Shikata, and here's how he put it.

NORIYUKI SHIKATA: There are areas, you know, where there could be cooperation on global issues such as, you know, global health issues, climate change. So that's why, you know, we are talking about this building constructive and stable relationship.

KUHN: But we should note, though, that China still mostly sees the G-7 as a bunch of Western nations ganging up on it.

FADEL: Now you're in Hiroshima, where the G-7 summit is happening. What's the significance of the actual city, the venue where it's being held?

KUHN: Well, Hiroshima was the first city to suffer a nuclear attack in 1945. And Japan is trying to use that powerful symbolism to unite G-7 leaders on global challenges, including nuclear weapons. So the leaders visited the Peace Park here near Ground Zero. They visited a museum and spoke to a survivor of the attack, an 85-year-old woman who told them that such a disaster must never be repeated. Japan definitely has a special role to play in pushing for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But it's really difficult because at the same time, Japan relies on U.S. nuclear weapons for its security.

FADEL: Speaking of the U.S., President Biden is there in Japan, but he did cancel the rest of his trip - to Australia, then Papua New Guinea - to get back here over the debt ceiling crisis. How has that news been received there in Asia?

KUHN: Yeah, there's some disappointment here, but it's not the first time that's happened. I spoke to Brad Glosserman, who is a deputy director at the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies in Tokyo. And here's what he said.

BRAD GLOSSERMAN: I very rarely, if ever, in fact, see a non-U.S. voice, particularly from the region, saying, oh, my God, this is the end of American leadership, or this is a real body blow to American credibility. It's more like, OK, here we go again.

KUHN: And of course, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the G-7, a U.S. debt default could trigger a global economic downturn. So I think many observers in Asia are just fine with Biden heading home to prevent that from happening.

FADEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, joining us from Hiroshima, Japan.

Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Leaders from across the Arab world are meeting today in Saudi Arabia. And someone who hasn't been in the room for over a decade is making a reappearance.

MARTÍNEZ: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is officially ending years of isolation by the region's powers over its brutal civil war that's killed an estimated half a million people. Washington has condemned the kingdom's normalization of ties with Assad, and the invitation is seen as another sign of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy is in Jeddah. That's where this year's Arab League Summit is taking place.

Good morning, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so the return of Bashar al-Assad, who was something of a pariah over his crackdown on the opposition to his rule, the torture in prisons, the hundreds of thousands who've been killed in the civil war - now he's just being welcomed back.

BATRAWY: Well, yeah, I mean, that is pretty much what's happened. Look, there are countries - important ones like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates - that had already been building back their ties with Syria for years now. But the big shift really happened after February's earthquakes that struck Turkey and parts of Syria. It gave Saudi Arabia and other countries around the fence in this region what they needed to reengage with Syria, at least for humanitarian purposes at first. But not everyone in the region agrees with this embrace of Assad. Qatar and Kuwait are both opposed. And the image of Assad being welcomed here on the red carpet yesterday when he arrived in Jeddah is jarring to many Syrians as well. I spoke with Mohammed Alaa Ghanem. He's the policy chief at the Syrian American Council. It's an opposition group that's calling for democracy in Syria. He says Arab states are just legitimizing Assad without even extracting any real concessions from him first.

MOHAMMED ALAA GHANEM: Has Assad changed anything? Has Assad released political prisoners, especially women and children? Assad has made absolutely no changes, no concessions that would merit readmitting him. So sadly, normalizing ties with him can only be seen as capitulation.

BATRAWY: But the prime mover behind this is the region's power broker, Saudi Arabia. And as host of this year's Arab League Summit, they really did push for Assad to be invited back. And this will be his first time at the summit in 12 years.

FADEL: Just to remind people how the war started in Syria, it was protests against Assad's rule that were violently repressed, that turned into a civil war. Saudi Arabia, the host country today, backed the rebels trying to topple Assad. And today this return means - what? - that Assad has officially won?

BATRAWY: Well, I mean, his country is in economic crisis right now, and U.S. sanctions are really impeding efforts to normalize with him. But, yeah, I mean, the effort to topple him failed when Russia and Iran rushed to his side. And now Syria's civil war is at a stalemate. Millions of Syrian refugees are waiting to return, and that is going to require rebuilding Syria. And Arab states do want a piece of that. And they're hoping Syria can reorient itself back to the Arab fold and away from Iran, which still has a very big footprint there.

FADEL: So as you mentioned, Saudi is the region's power broker - lots of influence economically, politically, religiously. What's Saudi Arabia hoping to get out of this summit?

BATRAWY: The kingdom wants to flex its diplomatic muscles. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was long seen as a brash, impulsive, even unpredictable leader. But he's reversing course on a lot of that and trying to rebrand Saudi Arabia as a mediator, including even in the war between Russia and Ukraine. And I'm hearing from diplomatic sources that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been invited to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah. So this is Prince Mohammed really flexing that ability, resisting U.S. pressure to pick a side, go against Russia, while also inviting Assad, a patron of Russia, to a summit where Zelenskyy could be in attendance. So it's really the crown prince showcasing his power as a broker on the world stage.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jeddah.

Thank you, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Disney says it's canceling plans to build a $1 billion office campus in Florida.

MARTÍNEZ: The head of Disney's theme parks attributes the cancellation to, quote, "new leadership and changing business conditions." And those changing business conditions appear to include what Disney sees as retaliation from the governor, Ron DeSantis, over its opposition to his parental rights in education bill, which critics have dubbed as the Don't Say Gay law. Disney and Florida are also in a legal battle over the state's decision to strip the company of its self-governance status at its Florida resort.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami to discuss this.

Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So how big of a deal is this?

ALLEN: This is a pretty big deal. Disney began making plans two years ago to build this new complex for its creative team in Orlando. You know, it acquired the land and told some 2,000 employees they'd have to relocate to Florida. You know, as you say, it's a $1 billion project. These were to be high-paying jobs with an average salary around $120,000 a year. Cancelling such a big project is a major decision for the company. In his memo, Disney Parks head Josh D'Amaro said, quote, "This was not an easy decision to make, but I believe it's the right one."

FADEL: Now, much of this is related to Disney's ongoing feud with Governor DeSantis, right?

ALLEN: Right. That seems to be at least a factor here.

FADEL: OK.

ALLEN: The new leadership mentioned in the Disney memo includes CEO Bob Iger, who came out of retirement recently to resume his role as company chairman. Iger reportedly was not a fan of the plan to relocate thousands of employees, including some of the so-called Imagineers who help design the theme park attractions. Plans for the project were also not popular with Disney employees who were told they'd have to relocate. But the company has also been going through this whole cost-cutting regime in an effort to boost profits. And The New York Times reports that people briefed on the matter say the company's dispute with DeSantis figured prominently in the decision to cancel the project.

FADEL: And this all began with Disney's opposition to a Florida law that limits what people can say about gender identity and sexual orientation in school. And then it escalated, right?

ALLEN: Right, exactly. You know, after this measure that supporters call the Parental Rights in Education Act passed last year, Disney's former CEO said he'd work to undo it. DeSantis then pushed for a law that was passed which stripped the company of its self-governing authority. Disney, though, is a powerful company with a long history in Florida, and it fought back. The company recently filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and other officials. Here's CEO Bob Iger in a conference call with analysts last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB IGER: This is about one thing and one thing only, and that's retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation. And we believe that in us taking that position, we are merely exercising our right to free speech.

ALLEN: During that call, Iger asked a rhetorical question. Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes or not?

FADEL: I mean, that's a big question. The decision means loss of jobs. I wonder also if other big companies are watching the feud and making their own decisions. How have leaders in Florida reacted to this news?

ALLEN: Well, you know, the head of Florida's Democratic Party, Nikki Fried, blamed the cancellation on, quote, "DeSantis's unhinged personal vendetta against Disney," and he said that he'd made Florida an anti-business state. No word yet from Governor DeSantis himself, but in a statement, his press secretary cited, quote, "the company's financial straits" and said it wasn't surprising that Disney would, quote, "cancel unsuccessful ventures."

FADEL: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.

Thanks, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.