Saudi Breakthrough

Syrians look for peace, trade with Saudi help.

Saudi Breakthrough

Syrians look for peace, trade with Saudi help.

Friday, 16 October, 2009
The recent visit of Saudi Arabia’s king to Syria after years of strained relations was hailed by analysts as the start of a new political and economic phase of bilateral ties - but was also seen as a sign that tensions in the Middle East could be starting to unwind.

King Abdullah met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on October 7 for the first time since he acceded to the throne of the Saudi kingdom in 2005. In August, Riyadh restored its ambassador to Syria after an 18-month break.

Relations soured between the two countries following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Disagreements deepened in the following years with Saudi Arabia accusing Damascus of meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Analysts say that the rapprochement between the two countries, welcomed by Washington, will bear fruits in troubled parts of the region like Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Syria and Saudi Arabia agree on their vision for Iraq, said a Damascus-based political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said that both countries opposed the attitude of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who the analyst said was promoting the role of Shia in Iraq at the expense of the Sunnis.

The visit of the Saudi monarch comes at a time when tension continues between Iraq and Syria after Baghdad accused Damascus of harbouring those responsible for a bloody attack that killed nearly 100 people in Iraq in August.

The Iraqi accusations pushed the Syrian regime to seek the support of another big Arab nation that shares its reservations about the Iraqi leadership, said the analyst.

He added that Syria needed the support of the Saudis after becoming, in the eyes of many Sunni Arab nations, a destabilising force in the region.

Observers say on the other hand that Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential Sunni country in the region, was reaching out to the Syrians having been alarmed by ties between Damascus and Tehran, which it often describes as a threat for trying to increase its clout in the region.

Mohamad al-Khoder, a political analyst in Damascus, said that although Saudi Arabia and Syria could agree on a joint policy towards Baghdad, Iraq remains today the “most dangerous and explosive link” in the region.

After a recent high-profile Arab meeting in Egypt over security in Iraq, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said that talks with Syria had failed over the Baghdad attacks and the United Nations has agreed to investigate the matter, news agencies reported.

Khoder argued that other deadlocked issues in the region were easier to solve.

The understanding between Saudis and Syrians will spur factions in Lebanon to agree to the formation of a new government of national unity, he said.

Although a final agreement has not been reached in Lebanon months after Hariri’s son Saad was asked to form a government, Khoder sees positive signs.

Saudi Arabia has pressed its allies in the western-backed parliamentary majority to accept conceding some contested portfolios to the opposition, he said. On the other hand, the Syrians pushed Hezbollah to facilitate the creation of the government, he added.

On the Palestinian front, the Saudi-Syrian detente could also have a positive impact. Riyadh could persuade Syria to press its Palestinian protégés, the exiled leaders of the militant group Hamas, to accept the terms of an Egyptian-brokered truce with the western-backed Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, Khoder said.

Apart from politics, the summit paved the way for better economic ties between the two countries by facilitating trade and improving the atmosphere for existing and prospective Saudi investments in Syria.

The Syrian minister of finance, Mohamad al-Hussein, told reporters in a news conference on October 8 that Riyadh and Damascus agreed to remove obstacles preventing the flow of products traded between the two countries, mainly high customs levies on some items like Syrian ceramics and olive oil.

State news agency SANA said Hussein and his Saudi counterpart, Ibrahim Assaf said the volume of trade, now two billion dollars a year, will "begin growing in the coming days".

Syria exports mainly mutton, vegetables and fruits as well as clothes to Saudi Arabia. It imports primarily oil-derivatives from the kingdom.

During the recent years of tension between the two nations, Saudi Arabia imposed high tariffs on some food items imported from Syria and sometimes impeded the entry of Syrian trucks, press reports say.

Likewise, Saudi investments in Syria are expected to rise in the near future, said Mohamad al-Sahli, a Damascus-based economic expert.

According to the official Syrian investment board, Saudi investments in Syria increased from 750 million dollars in 2007 to one billion in 2008.

Saudi investments in industrial projects in Syria have notably increased in 2009, experts say. The kingdom also invests in real estate and tourism projects, like the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus and the Nakheel Village outside Damascus.

Damascus is also preparing to host in the coming months a major conference for Syrian and Saudi businessmen to discuss ways of improving the business environment for Saudis in Syria and vice versa.
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