Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has welcomed an invitation by King Salman of Saudi Arabia to visit the kingdom. The development follows the recent China-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries, and could have wide-reaching affects in the Middle East, particularly in relation to Syria.
The only visit to Riyadh by an Iranian Islamic Republic president was in 1999 by Mohammed Khatami at the invitation of crown prince Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor. Ties were severed in 2016 after Iranians ransacked Tehran’s Saudi embassy in a protest over Riyadh’s execution of dissident Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
A meeting by the heads of state of Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia could accelerate regional reconciliation fostered by United Arab Emirates president Mohammed bin Zayed. He was briefed on Thursday by Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani, who negotiated the deal with his Saudi counterpart Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban. The Emirates restored relations with Iran last year.
On Sunday, Mr bin Zayed held discussions with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He said: “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings.”
While praising the Emirates’ efforts, Mr Assad criticised cutting ties as an “incorrect principle in politics” and argued inter-Arab relations should be “fraternal,” the Syrian presidency reported.
Six Arab countries withdrew ambassadors from Damascus and the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership after the crackdown on Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrators in 2011, which precipitated civil and proxy warfare.
In 2018, the Emirates reopened its Damascus mission and urged other Arab governments to follow suit. The Emirates, Algeria and Oman have pressed the League to readmit Syria before the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia in May. Emirati presidential adviser Anwar Gargash said the Emirates’ efforts towards Syria “are part of a deeper vision and a broader approach aimed at strengthening Arab and regional stability.”
Arab commentators have said re-engagement has been boosted by Arab humanitarian aid to Syria after last month’s earthquakes which, according to the UN, killed 6,000 Syrians, rendered 5.3 million homeless, devastated Aleppo and damaged Hama and Latakia provinces. The Emirates has pledged $100 million in aid, the largest donation from one country.
Mr bin Zayed pressed for repatriation of Syrian refugees and urged Mr Assad to meet Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed rebels and jihadis seeking to overthrow the Syrian government since conflict erupted 12 years ago.
Mr Assad may not agree. He has supported refugees’ return to rural areas in Damascus and Homs provinces where they could work in agriculture, but not to urban areas where refugees would increase pressures on minimal supplies of water, electricity, and fuel as well as overstretched services.
Mr Assad has also refused to engage with Mr Erdogan until Turkey withdraws troops and surrogate militias from northern Syria.
During last week’s discussions in Moscow with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Mr Assad praised Saudi-Iranian restoration of relations. As a result, he said: “Syria is no longer an arena for Saudi-Iranian confrontation.”
During the war, Riyadh backed anti-government jihadis and Tehran reinforced the Syrian army with paramilitaries. Following Riyadh’s delivery of humanitarian aid for Syrian quake victims, Mr Assad said: “Saudi policy has taken a different direction towards Syria.”