The summit that never was
The Syrians are hoping for an end to their four years of estrangement from the Saudis, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus
Unconfirmed reports published in Syria and Lebanon spoke of a possible visit to Syria by Saudi King Abdullah, perhaps for a mini-summit with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, one that Saad Al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister-designate, may attend. As it turned out, neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia confirmed the reports, and the Saudi monarch has yet to show up in Damascus.
Syrian presidential adviser Bothayna Suleiman said that no date has been decided for such a visit, adding that the Saudi king is welcome in Syria at any time. She noted that Syrian-Saudi relations are "relations between two brotherly countries, related to all Arab concerns, and cannot be confined to the Lebanese dossier alone." She further stated that there is no "Lebanese complex" impeding relations between the two countries.
According to Syrian sources, Saudi Arabia has named a new ambassador to Damascus, following 16 months in which the post remained vacant. The new ambassador is Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Ayfan, a man known to be close to King Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its last ambassador to Damascus, Ahmed Al-Qahtani, in March 2008. It named him envoy to Qatar in a move many saw as the start of a possible long- term diplomatic estrangement.
Differences between the two countries erupted in 2005, following the assassination of prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, a close ally and friend of the Saudis. The Saudis blamed Syria implicitly for the killing, and it was said at the time that King Abdullah told Al-Assad to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon immediately and stop interfering in Lebanese internal affairs.
Tensions worsened following Israel's war on Lebanon in 2006, when Hizbullah, Syria's ally, was blamed for triggering the fighting. Al-Assad's description of Hizbullah's detractors as "half-men" upset the Saudis, who were also critical of Hamas, another friend of Syria, for provoking the recent war in Gaza.
Syrian-Saudi differences cast a shadow over the region. At one point, the Saudis were said to have asked some Arab countries to stay away from the Damascus summit of March 2007.
Syrian semi-official media became particularly critical of Saudi Arabia, breaking with the reconciliatory tone they maintained for four decades under late President Hafez Al-Assad. Despite his numerous differences with the Saudis, the late president never involved the media in the dispute.
Syrian-Saudi reconciliation efforts began in earnest last January, with Qatar, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia meeting on the sidelines of the economic summit in Kuwait. That was followed by a meeting in Riyadh in March between Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Kuwaiti Emir Jabir Al-Sabbah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In February, Saudi Chief of Intelligence Prince Moqren bin Abdel-Aziz visited Syria, bringing a verbal message from the Saudi King. The visit was a surprise to observers who failed to see the strategic and long-term implications of the four-way reconciliation session in Kuwait. A week later, the Syrian foreign minister took a message back from Al-Assad to King Abdullah.
Nothing has been disclosed about the content of the exchanges apart from the usual statement that the two leaders were exchanging views over "developments in the region and the need for Arab solidarity in the face of challenges." It is a stock phrase that the Syrian media uses whenever President Al-Assad receives Arab officials. News about the Syrian president is usually written by his press officers and appears in the media without change.
Early this month, Prince Abdel-Aziz bin Abdullah, a personal envoy of the Saudi king, and Saudi Culture Minister Abdel-Aziz Khoja visited Damascus. Prince Abdel-Aziz was the highest level official from the Saudi royal family to visit Syria in years. Syria didn't disclose the aim of the visit, but there has been speculation that the prince was preparing for a summit between the Saudi and Syrian leaders in Damascus.
Although the summit never came to pass, an official Syrian source told me that "apart from the conflict between the two countries in recent years, which has taken on a personal dimension involving the two leaders, the relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria need to be urgently improved for the sake of the region and its future."
Fayez Ezzeddin, a leading figure in Syria's ruling Baath Party, said that "Syria is maintaining an open door policy towards Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and the Saudis can use this to build strong ties with the Syrians." He added that the Syrians are acting out of the belief that the two countries share similar concerns and a common future, and that the regional situation now calls for the cooperation of all Arabs. Recently, he said, Saudi Arabia has reviewed its policy towards Syria and realised that "quarrelling was useless and that it was wrong to turn its back on Syria."
It has been said that tensions eased between Syria and Saudi Arabia because the Lebanese cabinet was formed according to Saudi terms. Damascus denies that its relations with Saudi Arabia hinge on events in Lebanon.
"We do not interfere in the formation of the future Lebanese government, this is all up to the domestic dialogue in Lebanon," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said. He added that Syrian-Saudi consultations are continuing. "We're talking, and not through third parties, and continue to do so," Al-Muallim pointed out.
Many, however, suspect that the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement is little more than lip service. The two countries are exchanging views, but these views are still far apart. More time is apparently needed for reconciliation to take root.
Syria and Saudi Arabia are not in disagreement about Lebanon alone. Syria's ties with Iran and Palestinian groups, as well as the progress of peace talks with Israel and the situation in Iraq are all matters of dispute.
For now, however, it seems that Syrian-Saudi tensions are being defused. The two countries acknowledge their differences, but go on talking. And few would be surprised if President Al-Assad and King Abdullah were to meet face to face before the summer is over.