The process of reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia took another step forward yesterday with the arrival in Damascus of King Abdullah for talks with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president. For years, Riyadh's relationship with Damascus has been poisoned by a falling-out between the countries' rulers. But King Abdullah's visit is a sign that the storm cloud of Saudi-Syria antagonism appears to have cleared.
Lebanon will probably top the agenda of the talks. Syria's and Saudi Arabia's competing ambitions there led the two into a proxy struggle for influence over Beirut, with Saudi Arabia backing the March 14 alliance of Saad al Hariri against the Hizbollah-led opposition bloc, supported by Syria. By 2008 that struggle had erupted into violent street battles in the Lebanese capital. But tensions then subsided and the Syrians helped broker a political deal that saw peaceful, successful Lebanese elections held this summer.
Damascus pointedly did not interfere in the ballot, which was won by the Saudi-funded Hariri group, easing the way for a wider rapprochement. The Saudi-Syria contest also reflects a broader competition for regional dominance between the United States and Iran. Saudi has long been a key ally of Washington, while Syria and Tehran, both backers of Hizbollah, have similarly maintained a close relationship for decades.
With the United States and its Arab allies increasingly alarmed by Iranian nuclear ambitions, they have stepped up diplomatic re-engagement with Syria, at least in part as an attempt to ease Damascus out of Tehran's sphere of influence. This year, the United States said it would return an ambassador to Syria, filling a post that has been vacant since 2005. Saudi Arabia quickly followed suit, announcing in July that it too would dispatch an ambassador to Damascus, a position withdrawn in 2008.
The turnaround in the relationship was underlined last month when Mr Assad made a short visit to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarch's visit to Damascus can also be seen as a step towards the closer Arab co-operation that King Abdullah publicly urged at an Arab League summit in Kuwait in January. His plea came amid deep divisions in Arab unity following Israel's devastating 22-day military assault on the Gaza Strip. Syria and Qatar openly supported Hamas, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia favoured Fatah, criticising what they viewed as Hamas's provocations of Israel.
King Abdullah is likely to tell Mr Assad that "it's a good time to come back to the Arab fold and act like an Arab state", said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. That, he added, "requires some kind of divorce between Syria and Iran on the strategic level". Riyadh along with Cairo has been alarmed in the past year by what they regard as Iran's increasingly aggressive meddling in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. In their eyes, Iran's closest Arab ally, Syria, abets this Iranian influence. "For Syria and Iran to have a strong relationship is not the problem," said one Saudi official who declined to be identified because he is not authorised to publicly discuss the matter. The issue, he added, is that "Arabs should serve Arab national interests".
But if King Abdullah's reciprocal trip is aimed at loosening Syria's links with Iran, some believe that Riyadh and Washington may be disappointed. Although Syria has stressed it wants close links with Saudi Arabia, officially at least Damascus insists it does not have to choose between Riyadh and Tehran. "Syria is not looking to trade one alliance for another," said Umran Zaubie, a Syrian lawyer and member of the governing Baath Party. "Each relationship is separate and Syria can have close ties with Saudi and Iran at the same time, as has been the case in the past.
"Iran does not interfere with Syria's links to the Arab world." That view is not universally held inside Syria. An independent political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his comments, said a stronger relationship between Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States would affect Damascus's links with Tehran. "Iran is a major power and no one can ignore that," he said. "If there is to be a meaningful peace process, it will have to take the Iranians into account. But although Syria cannot prevent Iran's role it can water down the influence it has.
"I'm not sure if trying to pull Syria away from Iran will be successful, probably not; but Syria is pragmatic and is gambling on various outcomes." Syria is adamant the diplomatic thaw between Damascus and Riyadh has not resulted from changes in its policy or attitude, but is rather a function of a new, more conciliatory US approach to the Middle East under Barack Obama, the president. "The US decided to resume the language of dialogue and engagement," Mr Zaubie said. "The old American policies in the Middle East and towards Iran have failed.
"We are at the beginning of a new era in Syrian-American ties and that affects many of the region's powers' positions. The political circles in Saudi have felt this change." The Saudis can argue, Mr Alani said, that the Syrians risk being left out in the cold if the Obama administration pursues closer relations with Iran and the two strike a bargain giving Iran a bigger role in the region. At that point, Mr Alani argued, "Syria will lose its value for Iran".
Although the king's visit to Damascus is a clear indicator of progress, one Syrian commentator, Mazen Bilal, cautioned that Saudi Arabia may have already left it too late to moderate Iran's strength. "Saudi is worried about Iranian power eclipsing its own position as a major regional power, and that would leave the major positions in the hands of Iran on one side and Israel on the other," he said. "That may have already happened. It might be that Riyadh has already been bypassed."
Still, Arab unity is very important, Mr Alani said, and "this is why King Abdullah is going the extra mile with Syria". Some analysts say Saudi Arabia would like to see a revival of the traditional triangle of moderate Arab states - Syria-Egypt-Saudi Arabia - to create a more solid front against Iranian interference in the region. The most public sign of a thaw in the frosty relations came last month with Mr Assad's surprise appearance at the formal inauguration of a new Saudi graduate university near Jeddah. The king wanted the gala opening of his new university to be a showcase of Arab unity. After Syria initially indicated it would send a senior education official to the event, King Abdullah called Mr Assad and urged him to come himself. In a display of hospitality, King Abdullah kept Mr Assad near his side for much of the festivities, which were broadcast nationally.
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Phil Sands reported from Baghdad; Caryle Murphy was in Riyadh.