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Saudi-Syrian normalization takes off with Hajj flights, return of ambassador

Diplomatic relations have resumed between the two countries as Riyadh appointed Faisal al-Mujfel ambassador to Syria — the first since relations were severed in 2012.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Flights between Saudi Arabia and Syria resumed on Tuesday for the first time in more than a decade as Damascus reintegrates into the Arab world.

A flight carrying 270 pilgrims left Syria’s capital for Jeddah, Syrian transportation official Suleiman Khalil told Agence France-Presse. The trip is the first of its kind since passenger flights between the two countries were suspended in 2012 and more flights are expected in the coming days, according to the outlet.

The pilgrims will participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy Muslim city of Mecca next month. The flights only apply to the Haj, not regular passenger flights, and Syria is “studying the reopening of a direct air route,” Khalil told the AFP.

The resumption follows the reappointment of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Damascus. The official Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday that Faisal al-Mujfel has been appointed ambassador — the first since relations were severed in 2012.

Why it matters: The moves come as Syria makes a gradual return to the Arab fold. The country was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 amid President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on protests and subsequent start of the civil war. Saudi Arabia cut ties with Syria the following year along with the United Arab Emirates and other regional states.

Syria was readmitted to the Arab League in May of last year, and Saudi Arabia reestablished relations days later. Later that month, Assad visited Saudi Arabia for the annual Arab League summit on his first visit since the war started.

The thaw in Syria-Saudi Arabia ties has been gaining momentum. Syrian Culture Minister Labana Mshaweh visited Riyadh on Saturday and met with her Saudi counterpart, Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud. The two discussed cooperation in the cultural realm, particularly with regard to museums and archaeology, Syria’s official news outlet SANA reported.

The same day, the head of the Saudi humanitarian agency KSrelief, Abdullah Al Rabeeah, met Syrian Health Minister Hassan Al-Ghabbash on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. They discussed humanitarian and relief issues including the 2023 Syrian earthquake, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Know more: Iranian pilgrims also returned to Saudi Arabia in April following a nine-year absence. Saudi Arabia and Iran resumed relations last year in a deal brokered by China. Ties between the two regional rivals were severed in 2016 over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia.