After Iran, Saudi Arabia eyes reestablishing ties with Syria

The move will mark latest Saudi step towards mending rifts with regional rivals

March 24, 2023
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (left) and Syria President Bashar al-Assad. — Reuters/File
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (left) and Syria President Bashar al-Assad. — Reuters/File

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia and Syria are in talks on resuming consular services, Saudi state media said Thursday, more than a decade after the Gulf kingdom cut ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

"A discussion is underway between officials in the kingdom and their counterparts in Syria about resuming the provision of consular services," state-affiliated channel Al-Ekhbariya said, citing a Saudi foreign ministry official.

The report gave no timeline for the move, which would mark the latest Saudi step towards mending rifts with regional rivals.

Earlier this month, a Chinese-brokered deal was announced to restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, seven years after they had been severed.

Riyadh has been hinting at a rapprochement with Syria for weeks.

It sent aid to both rebel-held and government-controlled parts of the country in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, killing tens of thousands of people.

That effort did not involve direct contact with Assad’s internationally isolated government, and Saudi officials instead coordinated with the Syrian Red Crescent on aid going into government-controlled territory.

Damascus has seen amplified Arab engagement since the quake, including from governments that have so far resisted normalisation after more than a decade of war.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in February that a consensus was building in the Arab world that a new approach to Syria requiring negotiations with Damascus would be needed to address humanitarian crises.

"There is a consensus within the Arab world that the status quo is not working and that we need to find some other approach," Prince Faisal told the Munich Security Conference.

"What that approach is, is still being formulated," he added.

Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa researcher for Eurasia Group, said Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would like to see "a more stable environment" in the region that would let him focus on domestic issues.

"The domestic economic modernisation agenda requires a more stable environment and therefore the deals that are emerging," Kamel told AFP.

The Saudi foreign minister said policy shifts on Syria could also help Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, primarily Jordan and Lebanon.

On Sunday, Assad visited the United Arab Emirates, where President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told him it was time for Damascus to be reintegrated into the wider Arab region, Emirati state media said.

The trip — Assad’s second to the oil-rich UAE in as many years — comes after a visit to Oman last month, his only official engagements in Arab countries since the start of Syria’s war in 2011.

Syria was expelled from the Cairo-based Arab League in 2011 over its violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.