Relations with Syria warming up

Saudi Arabia, Tunisia visits expected to bring country back into Arab fold

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (right) receives Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Damascus on Tuesday. (PHOTO / AFP)

Saudi Arabia and Tunisia joined the latest moves of breaking Syria's 12-year isolation — with its possible return to the Arab fold, which analysts believe, is providing the necessary path to creating sustainable economic linkages and harnessing broader diversification efforts in the war-fatigued Middle East.

Syria was a member of the Arab League, a 22-member regional organization formed in Cairo in 1945, until its suspension in 2011 following demonstrations. But in recent years, a number of Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates, have changed their approach and begun to normalize ties with Damascus.

On April 18, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told visiting Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Damascus — a first for a senior Saudi official since the outbreak of the Syrian war — that the reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia will have positive effects, not only on both countries, but also the wider Arab region, according to a Xinhua News Agency report.

Farhan Al Saud reiterated Saudi Arabia's support for Syria's territorial integrity, security, and stability, as well as facilitating the return of Syrian refugees. He emphasized the need for normalizing relations between Syria and all Arab countries, in order to restore Syria's role in the Arab world and the wider region. Farhan Al Saud's visit comes days following Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad's recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia, also mending ties with Syria, affirmed its support for Syria's role to be restored in the League of Arab States, stressing that its security and stability is a pillar of that of the entire region, according to Xinhua, which cited a statement posted on the Tunisian foreign ministry's official Facebook page.

The two are moving to resume diplomatic relations after Tunisian President Kais Saied met visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on April 18. "During the meeting, Saied affirmed Tunisia's firm keenness to resume the strong and historical ties of brotherhood and cooperation between Tunisia and Syria," said a statement by the Tunisian presidency.

The Tunisian president also highlighted the importance of increasing opportunities and frameworks for bilateral consultation and coordination in various fields, according to the statement, Xinhua reported.

Sustainable linkages

Arhama Siddiqa, a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad in Pakistan, told China Daily that in the backdrop of the global fiscal crunch, all countries, including those in the Middle East, have been trying to create sustainable economic linkages.

For the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, "this includes finding avenues which will help them stave off oil dependency", said Siddiqa.

Rasha Al Joundy, a senior researcher at the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre in the United Arab Emirates, noted that the regional and international situation has changed and that it is "what pushed for a possible comeback for Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League".

"Of course, all this discourse was possible after the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in China, which eased the way for a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Syria, after it also affected the political process in Yemen," Al Joundy told China Daily.

Internationally, she said, the Ukrainian conflict "is a priority, especially for the US who stopped waiving sanctions if any country restored relations with Assad" and that it could mean the sanctions could be less observed in the coming years.

However, on April 13, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said in a televised speech that there were reasons for Syria's suspension from the Arab League, and "these reasons still exist".

According to the League of Arab States, the 32nd Arab summit is expected to be held in Saudi Arabia on May 19, where it is anticipated that Syria's return to the Arab League will be tackled.