Mohammad Al-Kassim is an associate producer at Worldfocus. He blogs here about the significance of the visit of Saudi Arabia’s king to Syria.
Since ascending to the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is making his first visit to Syria. The visit is being enthusiastically received by officials and political analysts in both countries. Relations between the two nations became tense following the U.S invasion of Iraq and the kingdom’s support for it. Two years later, relations deteriorated further after the alleged Syrian link to the assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier, Rafiq Hariri.
Saudi Arabia is aggressively trying to assert itself as the leader of both the Arab and Muslim worlds. Having two of the holiest sites in Islam located within its borders helps a lot, in addition to having lots of petrodollars to spread around.
On the other hand, Syria considers itself the last Arab state standing up for the Arab cause, and the only remaining Arab state that publicly challenges Israel. It therefore sees itself as the natural leader of the Arabs.
But there are other major issues that threaten the relationship between the kingdom and the republic.
Saudi Arabia is not happy with Syria’s close ties with Iran and it has concerns about Damascus’ support for the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah.
The issue of Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East disturbs Saudi Arabia, who represents the so-called “moderate Arab state.” The Saudis would love to bring Syria back into the “Arab side.” It’s very important for Saudi Arabia to have stubborn Syria on its side while aiming to take the leadership position for both the Arab and Muslim worlds.
If relations improve between the two countries, it may finally translate into the formation of a Lebanese government, the process of which has been deadlocked for months. Syria could use its influence on Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia would do the same on its Lebanese Sunni ally led by Sa’ed Hariri.
Saudi Arabia certainly could use whatever tools at its disposals to persuade Syria. The rich oil monarchy can start by injecting some much-needed financial help into the Syrian economy. Saudi Arabia could also use its clout with the U.S. and help Syria with opening the door to diplomatic dealings with the White House, something the Syrian government is eager to do.
The thaw in the relationship is in motion; it seems that both leaders are in agreement that rapprochement must not be stopped. But how long will it be before both recall their ambassadors back home is anybody’s guess.
– Mohammad Al-Kassim