Arab Pilgrimage to Damascus: Signs of Saudi Diplomatic Comeback

For the first time since the outbreak of conflict in Syria, an official delegation visited Saudi Arabia at an invitation by Saudi Journalists Commission (equal to an NUJ) as well as an invitation by the General Secretariat of Arab Journalists Unions for its regular meeting in Riyadh last week. The Syrian delegation included Chairman of the Journalists Union Mousa Abdennour and member of the General Secretariat Ilyas Mourad. I spoke to Abdennour, a long-time colleague and friend, after his return from the Saudi capital to suss out the atmosphere surrounding the first Syrian participation in an event in Saudi Arabia for eight years.

“The reception was warm, and participation positive. The Saudi hosts proposed signing a bilateral agreement with our union, as they did with other participants at the General Secretariat’s regular meeting. We asked them to send a draft agreement that we’ll examine before any signature. We hope this participation signals some positive return of warmth to the Syrian-Saudi relations as the war draws nearer to its final chapters,” Abdennour told me earlier today.

Symbolic gesture that could herald a new opening

Although on the surface, this might look like a mere participation in a normal event, the fact that Syrian official unions representing a government that Saudis, along with other Gulf and Arab nations have boycotted for over eight years now, carries a strong symbolic significance that could herald a landmark turn of political tide between Damascus and some Arab nations accused of supporting and exporting tens of thousands of hardline Islamic militants and terrorists in a massive effort and stated campaign to topple the Syrian government and oust President Bashar al Assad in person.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have spent billions of US dollars to that end, as Qatari former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr admitted in an interview with the BBC last year. The embarrassing confessions made by the Qatari official in the course of that interview included claiming that “Saudi Arabian royalty entrusted the role of government and regime change in Syria to the Qataris, but later on left us alone in that mission which ended in an abysmal failure”.  As a result of that fiasco, Bin Jassem and his Qatari Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa were themselves ousted, and the Syrian leader appears more defiant and confident of victory than ever.

More signs of Saudi/Gulf diplomatic comeback

For the first time in eight years, the United Arab Emirates – along with Bahrain – which resumed diplomatic ties with Syria last December, hosted an official reception last week marking its 48th National Day celebrations. The event which was attended by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mikdad was marked by an unusually warm and friendly speech delivered by the Emirati Head of Mission in Damascus Abdel Hakeem Al Nuaimi, who reiterated the strength and speciality of Syrian-UAE relations. “We wish that peace and security prevail all over the Syrian Arab Republic, under the wise leadership of his excellency Dr Bashar al Assad,” al Nuaimi said in his written speech. Many considered this positive language a strong sign of the new approach adopted by the UAE towards Damascus and president Assad.

Today, passers by the Saudi embassy in the Syrian capital reported some maintenance and refurbishment works underway, which might indicate that a resumption of Saudi-Syrian diplomatic ties could be imminent, although no date has been fixed for such an important step. Normalization of relations between Damascus and the most important Arab nation in the Gulf will reflect positively on Syria’s political as well as economic stature. The Syrian economy has been badly hit by the outcome of the conflict, now in its ninth year, as well as by a strangling chain of economic sanctions led by the United States and the European Union and implemented by many US-allied Arab nations.

The Syrian infrastructure has been severely damaged as a result of the war, and the cost of reconstruction is estimated to run into over one trillion US dollars. Oil-rich Arab Gulf countries are expected to foot much of that bill, and could, along with China, Iran and Russia, carry out the reconstruction and investment mission, despite repeated official Syrian statements that those nations which took part in the war on Syria shall have no role or place in the reconstruction process. In politics they say, there’s neither a permanent friendship nor a permanent animosity; Syria might well be the place where this theory is set to be put into yet another fresh practice.