The Middle East and North Africa is experiencing significant changes in diplomatic relationships, which could lead to a long-lasting regional shift. One example of this trend is improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. However, Saudi Arabia is now trying to reconcile with Syria and bring it back into the regional community. This trend is also seen in the Al-Ula Accords, which helped resolve the Gulf diplomatic crisis and the UAE’s recent engagement with Turkey.
On April 12, the Saudi government hosted Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Jeddah, the first time a high-level representative of the Syrian government visited the country since the onset of Syria’s civil war. According to an official joint statement, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud met with Mekdad to discuss bilateral relations. Their discussion focused on humanitarian access, terrorism, Syria’s territorial integrity, smuggling, and the return of refugees. The representatives also discussed captagon, a narcotic popular across the Middle East and a significant source of illicit revenue for the Syrian government. Both ministers accepted a roadmap to resume consular services and flights between their respective countries.
Following the talks, the Saudi foreign minister traveled to Damascus on April 18 to continue the discussions, holding a historic meeting with Assad. Like Mekdad’s earlier visit to Saudi Arabia, the trip was the first visit to Syria by a Saudi foreign minister since the start of the war. An official statement reiterated many of the positions in the earlier joint statement. However, it stopped short of an invitation to either the Arab League or a head-of-state visit for now.
Quick Renormalization or Slow Rapprochement?
The rapidity with which these improvements take place after a prolonged period of estrangement is striking, and signs of an impending rapprochement between Damascus and Riyadh are evident. Previously, Saudi Arabia supported the idea of ousting Assad, and the government in Riyadh long provided financial and other assistance to various anti-Assad opposition groups within Syria. However, even during the regime’s most precarious days, Riyadh retained some communication channels with Damascus, signaling a willingness to engage on issues of mutual concern.
These lines of communication involved intelligence circles—most notably a quiet Damascus meeting between Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, General Khalid al-Humaidan, and his then-Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamluk, in May 2021. Humaidan then held another meeting with Syria’s new intelligence chief, Hussam Luka, in Cairo on the sidelines of the Arab Intelligence Forum in November 2021. Both countries avoided publicizing these engagements, likely testing the waters for a broader rapprochement. However, public interactions ultimately fell off; while some thought additional talks would lead to a gradual shift and growing rapprochement in 2022, that did not occur. As it did when it quietly supported Bahrain’s embassy reopening in 2018, Riyadh opted to take a wait-and-see approach, especially after the question of Syria’s status sharply divided the Algerian Arab League Summit in November 2021. During that meeting, Algiers tried to formulate an Arab consensus for Damascus’s return to the summit. Still, it failed to bridge the gap between other Arab states’ diverse positions. The Saudis likely took note and acted accordingly.
This changed with the February 6 earthquake that ravaged southern Turkey and northern Syria. The tragedy killed roughly 56,000 people and necessitated a massive humanitarian response that Arab states contributed to immediately. However, it also offered many states a chance to finally push for improved relations with Damascus under the guise of humanitarian access, a strategy sometimes described as “earthquake diplomacy.”
Saudi Arabia utilized this method to lay the groundwork for re-normalization with the Syrian government. Prince Farhan’s March 4 statement claimed that the status quo was “not tenable” and insisted that Saudi Arabia would “have to find a way to move beyond that.” This ultimately signaled future positive developments, with additional intelligence meetings and the reciprocal Mekdad and Prince Farhan visits in April.
However, the rapid shift in ties met roadblocks. The Kingdom appeared poised to force Damascus’s return to the Arab League via the May Riyadh summit–an outcome that has not developed. Rather, a small bloc of Arab states led by Qatar voiced disapproval, with Doha playing a particularly powerful role. While the Saudis hosted a meeting between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, as well as Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, to discuss Syria and the league, they could not produce a consensus. Rather, a mild unilateral statement from the Saudi foreign ministry left the issue unresolved.
Interests Driving Damascus and Riyadh
Regardless of such roadblocks, the Saudi decision to repair ties with Damascus reflects Riyadh’s desire to take the lead on regional issues. This is particularly true concerning long-running regional conflicts following its re-normalization deal with Iran on March 10. Ultimately, the Kingdom views its ability to lead the region and secure stability for its domestic economic reforms as existential interests that trump the post-Arab Spring conflicts of the last decade.
To be sure, the country has for decades involved in conflicts and unrest throughout the region in a similar fashion to its rival, Iran, albeit in many ways less blunt. The shift in approach likely reflects a new policy by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) following major setbacks in foreign adventurism policies in places like Yemen. Yet, while it should be noted that Riyadh has hardly solidified a complete about-face, current regional shifts adopt pragmatic diplomatic relations, at least for now. MbS has certainly noted this as he tries to guide his country into a new era via his “Vision 2030” economic plan.
The Kingdom’s interest in driving a regional shift towards pragmatism as a leader and problem solver is multifaceted. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia wants to encourage a regional thaw to promote unity and stability, again in support of its economic vision. China’s increasing role in the region plays a part here, as Beijing has stressed to Tehran and Riyadh the importance of stability while coupling lucrative economic dealings to their re-normalization. Additionally, the Saudis have worked towards GCC unity since the failed 2017-2021 Qatar blockade, wishing instead to present strength through unity as the region hedges in an increasingly multipolar world.
Yet, on the other hand, a competitive component to Saudi interests is at play. Ultimately, Riyadh carries rivalries with friends and foes alike in the region. This includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a supposed close ally, which has played itself out in the form of business competition in recent years. Given the Kingdom’s strong desire to play a leading and natural role in regional geopolitics, it could view Emirati efforts to re-normalize relations with Assad years ago as undermining Saudi regional hegemony. Understanding Abu Dhabi’s proactive diplomacy in recent years, not limited to the Abraham Accords and outreach to Iran, Riyadh could be aiming to stimy potential rivals for the top regional role.
More prominent, however, is an interest–shared amongst many Arab states–to counter Iranian influence in Syria. This approach, led under slightly different tracks by the UAE and Jordan, views Tehran’s increasing control and presence in Syria as a threat. This is a reasonable conclusion given Iran’s interest in a land corridor from its borders to Lebanon, facilitated by militias like Lebanese Hezbollah. That said, whether the Saudis fully buy this approach remains to be seen in public sentiments.
Similarly, Syria has much to gain from a Saudi rapprochement. Ultimately, any re-normalization of diplomatic ties with Riyadh would mark the strongest indicator yet of Damascus’s return to the regional fold. The Kingdom’s previous role as a major supporter of the Syrian opposition makes this even more crucial for Assad’s efforts to cast his government as a victor of the war and no longer a rogue state.
Indeed, Damascus likely views Riyadh as its best chance to return to the Arab fold–namely, the Arab League–to bolster its legitimacy. But Assad is also bargaining. Given the multitude of regional initiatives to re-engage Damascus, an opportunity to ‘forum shop’ has opened. Syria can and likely is playing Turkish, Jordanian, and Emirati initiatives off each other to extract the most concessions while giving none in return. The issue here lies in conformity, as the region’s leaders continue to present a disjointed stance and, in turn, approach regarding Assad.
Thus, Damascus could view renormalization with Saudi Arabia as another competing factor in the fragmented regional approach to his regime. Instead of negotiating in good faith with Turkey about the future of the Syrian opposition and Turkish presence in northwest Syria, the Syrian government can stall while presenting a hard line as the Saudis and Emiratis push for a more up-front approach-namely re-normalization with little to no conditions up front. This is exactly what happened in Moscow earlier this month in quadripartite negotiations between the Syrian regime, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, with the latter of these countries possibly playing a role in what has become a bad-faith negotiating tactic.
The New Middle East
These interests will ultimately drive the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement in the near term, and this dynamic has already presented itself as an effort to bring back Syria to the Arab League. Diplomatic engagements may lay the groundwork for an eventual heads-of-state meeting in 2023, given the rate of interaction currently underway. Such a meeting would be disastrous for the Syrian opposition and mark the most significant diplomatic event related to Syria in years.
While the likelihood of Damascus’s return to the Arab League remains in question due to an opposition bloc of countries preventing an Arab consensus, Riyadh could adopt a strategy of bilateral engagement with individual holdout countries—something Damascus has already called for amidst a stalled Arab League return. Turkey is one state that comes to mind, especially given the potential for a change in government in the upcoming May elections and the Kingdom’s increasing influence over Ankara due to recent currency influxes to prop up its ailing economy. Should the Turkish opposition honor its platform and choose to engage Assad, the Saudis may not have to flex their muscles in this regard.
Regardless, Riyadh’s shifting approach reflects a new Middle East that will continue to choose diplomatic pragmatism so long as it suits the states involved. Assad’s regime will reap the benefits in the coming months and years, barring a sudden shift. While the region regularly surprises even the most experienced regional experts, it is reasonable to conclude that this trend is here to stay. Autocrats and murderers like Assad will, unfortunately, get to relish that reality.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.