Since the beginning of this year Saudi Arabia has been involved in talks with regional players, including Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. What’s behind Riyadh’s diplomatic initiatives and could it help Syria overcome decade-long isolation in the Arab world?
While tensions are swirling around the Gaza Strip, in other parts of the Middle East longtime rivals are trying to reach détente. Last week, Iran officially confirmed that it had held talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad. Prior to this announcement it was reported that on 3 May a high-level Saudi delegation headed by the intelligence service chief Khalid al-Humaidan had met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
The potential détente between Saudi Arabia and Syria has been in the making for some time. When on 16 December 2018 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir met with his Syrian counterpart, some observers interpreted this as an olive branch from Riyadh, given Khartoum’s close ties with Saudi Arabia. In January 2021, Moscow and Riyadh agreed on the “importance of Syria returning to the Arab League as soon as possible”.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged détente with Syria and preparations to reopen the Saudi Embassy in the country could open the doors to Damascus’ readmission to the Arab League as well as reconciliations between Syria and other Arab states, according to Ghassan Kadi, a Middle East expert, blogger, and political analyst.
“The Arab World is divided as you know, but the economic power of the Saudis certainly gives them political clout”, he notes, adding that Qatar is still opposed to the move. “So unless the Saudi and the Qataris are united on this front, the manner in which other Arab states choose to deal with Syria will depend on their financial support base”.
Outside the Arab world, Qatar’s ally Turkey is unlikely to follow Arab nations in shifting positions over Syria, according to Turkish commentators.
“Although Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), argues that establishing direct dialogue with Damascus would be the easiest way to reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria, it seems unlikely Ankara will make a major shift in its Syria policy for now, despite the changing conditions in the region and internationally”, Sinem Cengiz, a Turkish political analyst, wrote for Arab News.
Riyadh is Building Bridges in the Region
Still, “there is more to the Syrian-Saudi talks than meets the eye”, Kadi notes. “They cannot be seen in isolation from the much bigger picture that goes far beyond the borders of the two countries and their bilateral relationships”.
The expert notes that these negotiations are to some extent a supplement to the Saudi-Iran talks, secretly held last month in Iraq. Kadi suggests that the Iran-Saudi talks could bring an end to the six-year Yemen conflict, given Shiite Iran’s supposed influence on the Houthi rebels who have recently stepped up attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. At the same time, Riyadh and Iran could settle their differences over Syria and find quid-pro-quo solutions in both regions.
On 11 May, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Mecca. Cavusoglu’s visit to the country was the first in several years, since the Turkish-Saudi spat over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Earlier this year, Riyadh and its allies restored relations with Qatar, following a years-long diplomatic crisis that erupted on 5 June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed relations with the country over alleged support to some terrorist groups, something that Doha strongly denied.
Some observers allege that Riyadh has opted to mend ties with regional players as a signal that the kingdom does not consider Joe Biden’s White House sufficiently reliable. For their part, Saudi thought leaders and politicians are calling for “strengthening Arab and Islamic unity” and diversifying diplomatic ties.
Speaking to Saudi journalist Abdullah Al-Mudaifer in late April 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pointed out that while Riyadh is “in agreement with the Biden administration on more than 90 percent”, it is “also… seeking to create new partnerships with everyone else, such as Russia, India, China, Latin America, African countries, and others”.