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The slow, uncertain pace of Saudi-Syrian rapprochement

Even if the two sides eventually normalize ties, Damascus faces an uphill struggle to return to the Arab League.
Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini (C) attends a tourism conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 26, 2021, despite tense relations between the two countries.

On May 26, Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini became the first Syrian government official to visit Saudi Arabia since the civil war began in 2011. Martini’s trip fueled speculation about a normalization between Riyadh and Damascus, as it coincided with a series of positive developments in Syrian-Saudi relations. On May 3, Saudi intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khaled Humaidan met his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk in Damascus. Hours after Martini’s arrival in Riyadh, Bouthaina Shabaan, a prominent adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expressed optimism about a swift breakthrough in Syrian-Saudi normalization talks.  

Despite these developments, there are grounds for skepticism about a swift revival of relations. Since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman acknowledged that “Bashar is staying” in a March 2018 interview, there have been repeated failed attempts to facilitate a normalization between Syria and Saudi Arabia. One such attempt in 2018 saw Saudi Arabia offer reconstruction investments to Syria if Assad broke with Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to emulate the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which reopened their embassies in Damascus in December 2018, further underscores the arduous path towards a Riyadh-Damascus rapprochement.

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