Motives and factors influencing the improvement of Syrian-Saudi relations
It seems that Saudi Arabia still considers the improvement of relations with Damascus as a realistic option and a way to guarantee its wider regional interests.
Riyadh and Damascus were in rival camps in the 1950s and 1960s. After 1963, Syria's relations with Saudi Arabia have undergone periodic fluctuations. After the challenges in the 1980s, the two countries' relations improved in the 1990s, but the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, and Riyadh's support to the anti-government factions in Syria (2008) soured bilateral relations.
Despite improved ties in 2009, Saudi-Syrian relations deteriorated after the start of the war on Syria. Saudi Arabia severed its ties with Syria by closing the embassy in Damascus and expelled the Syrian ambassador in 2012. However, the signs and events of the past year indicate improving relations between the two countries.
Developments such as stopping critical statements by officials, stopping media criticism by both countries, sending a delegation from Syria to the Saudi capital, the presence of the Syrian Tourism Minister in Riyadh, and Bashar Al-Assad's meeting with the Saudi delegation in Damascus, have been signs that point to the clear improvement of relations between the two countries.
The recent visit of Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia to Damascus after the visit of Faisal Mekdad, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria to Jeddah was the first very important event in the process of normalization of relations since 2011.
International and regional political motivations and variables
In fact, further multipolarity attempts were detected in the international system; meanwhile, Riyadh was taking new steps toward Moscow and China. All these developments have played an important role in normalizing the relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Part of the recent negotiations for the normalization of Saudi-Syrian relations were held in Moscow, and China welcomed the agreement of Saudi Arabia and Syria to reopen the embassies.
Russia has tried to reduce tensions and encourage Saudi Arabia to support the readmission of Syria to the Arab League, which softened Riyadh's position toward Syria. In another dimension, less presence in the Middle East is in Washington's favor, and Washington has paid attention to evaluating its policies toward Damascus by maintaining sanctions and avoiding the normalization of relations.
However, Saudi Arabia is no longer waiting for America's green light in regional positioning, though this does not mean crossing the American red line. In fact, the return of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Syria does not constitute a violation of US sanctions.
Saudi Arabia's normalization with Iran has also played an important role in improving relations between Riyadh and Damascus. The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the mediation of China and its multilateral consequences in the Middle East, accelerated the improvement of Syrian-Saudi relations.
In addition, the previous compromises between Yemen-Saudi Arabia, Egypt-Qatar, Egypt-Turkey, Qatar-Bahrain, etc., each, in turn, have been motivations for improving Riyadh-Damascus relations. Strengthening Egyptian-Syrian relations is also an incentive for the return of Syrian-Saudi relations.
Apart from this, the change in the approach of the Arab countries regarding Syria and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between countries such as the UAE, Jordan, etc. with Syria has made Damascus and Riyadh more eager to reopen their embassies and resume flights. Also, the increasing will of countries for Damascus to rejoin the Arab League (which suspended Syria's membership in 2011), has pushed Riyadh to reduce tensions with Damascus. The Arab League's decision to readmit Syria after 12 year, was an important symbolic victory for Damascus with the help of Riyadh.
Since the summer of 2017, and following the Riyadh summit, Saudi Arabia has gradually separated itself from the Syrian opposition. From Damascus' point of view, cutting off financial aid to the militias and Riyadh's, "open and realistic policies" are in the interest of Syria. In fact, the reduction and disconnection of Riyadh's communication with the opposition of Damascus have led to the restoration of relations and focus to "maintaining the unity of Syria".
In addition, greater rapprochement regarding the integrity of Syrian lands, the return of Syrian refugees, the provision of sufficient infrastructure, the beginning of the reconstruction of Syria by providing Arab and international aid, and the expulsion of Turkish forces from Syria away from Resolution 2254, have all improved relations. With a new approach toward Syria, Riyadh wants to close the case of Saudi detainees in Syria. This cooperation can lead to other dimensions of anti-terrorism security issues. Like Egypt and the UAE, Riyadh hopes to limit the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood through its cooperation of Damascus.
Economic and cultural motivations and factors
Despite the difference in the type of systems, both countries have an Islamic-Arab identity. This can improve the relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, so a gradual improvement in relations based on Arab commonalities could be an opportunity for Syria and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Damascus will need Saudi lobbying and assistance to reduce US sanctions against Syria and allow investment in the country. Even now, Damascus hopes Riyadh will help in the reconstruction of Syria, create conditions for the return of Syrian refugees, provide sufficient infrastructure, and start the reconstruction of Syria by providing Arab and international aid.
In fact, by improving and normalizing relations, Saudi Arabia and its allies can contribute to the reconstruction of Syria with a significant investment. Also, improving relations helps to provide a suitable platform for more trade between Syria and the Arab world.
Before 2011, Saudi Arabia was one of the most important trading partners of Syria. Saudi Arabia also wants to focus on domestic projects with the aim of diversifying its economy and increasing its exports. In this situation, the volume of trade can be increased by reviving direct flights and consular services and political rapprochement.
The perspective of relationships
Syria and Saudi Arabia are taking steps to open consular services and flights between the two countries. It seems that Saudi Arabia still considers the improvement of relations with Damascus as a realistic option and a way to guarantee its wider regional interests.
In the meantime, the slow improvement of diplomatic, economic, tourism, and cultural relations and the continuation of talks to improve ties provide the basis for a step-by-step return to the 1990s level of relations. But ties are still far from complete normalization, and the conclusion of a bilateral strategic agreement requires the overcoming of multiple challenges.