Saudi Arabia and Syria ‘in talks to restore ties’

Saudi state television reports that the two countries are in talks to resume consular services.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps off a plane at he Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is hoping to come back into the Arab diplomatic fold after years of cold relations [File: Abdulla Al Neyadi/UAE Presidential Court/Handout via Reuters]

Saudi Arabia and Syria are in talks over a resumption of consular services between the two countries, according to Saudi state television, an indication of a possible restoration of ties between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian opposition in the country’s war, closed its embassy in Damascus and expelled the Syrian ambassador in 2012.

“Within the framework of the kingdom’s keenness to facilitate the provision of necessary consular services between the two nations, discussions are under way with officials in Syria to resume consular services,” the Al-Ekhbariya channel said on Thursday, citing a foreign ministry source.

The channel added that the foreign ministry source was commenting on international media reports.

Earlier on Thursday, the Reuters news agency had reported that Saudi Arabia and Syria had agreed to reopen their embassies, citing three sources with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Contacts between Riyadh and Damascus had gathered momentum following a landmark agreement to re-establish ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, a regional source aligned with Damascus told Reuters.

The re-establishment of ties between Riyadh and Damascus would mark the most significant development yet in moves by Arab states to normalise ties with al-Assad, who was shunned by many Western and Arab states after Syria’s civil war began in 2011.

The two governments were “preparing to reopen embassies after Eid al-Fitr”, a Muslim holiday in the second half of April, a second regional source aligned with Damascus said.

The decision was the result of talks in Saudi Arabia with a senior Syrian intelligence official, according to one of the regional sources and a diplomat in the Gulf.

The Saudi government’s communication office, the kingdom’s foreign ministry and the Syrian government have not officially commented on the matter.

Saudi state television later confirmed that talks were continuing with the Syrian foreign ministry to resume consular services, citing a Saudi foreign ministry official.

The apparently sudden breakthrough could indicate how the deal between Tehran and Riyadh may play into other crises in the region, where their rivalry has fuelled conflicts including the war in Syria.

The United States and several of its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had backed some of the Syrian rebels. Al-Assad was able to defeat the opposition across most of Syria, thanks largely to Iran and Russia.

The US, an ally of Saudi Arabia, has opposed moves by regional countries to normalise ties with al-Assad, citing his government’s brutality during the conflict and the need to see progress towards a political solution.

When asked about the rapprochement, a State Department spokesperson said the US “stance on normalisation remains unchanged” and that it would not encourage other countries to normalise ties with al-Assad.

The United Arab Emirates, another strategic US partner, has led the way in normalising contact with al-Assad, recently receiving him in Abu Dhabi with his wife.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies