Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saudi "Kings"

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Saudi King to Pressure Syria Over Iran Alliance

DAMASCUS -- Saudi King Abdullah al Saud is expected to make a rare visit to Syria this week to increase pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al Assad to loosen his alliance with Iran and strengthen Arab consensus on regional political and security issues, according to Saudi officials.

The summit would be the first trip to Damascus by the Saudi ruler since he took power in 2005. It culminates months of quiet diplomacy by the oil-rich Arab nation, U.S. and European officials who see Syria as a linchpin to curbing the influence of Iran and its proxies, such as militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

King Abdullah al Saud

For their part, Syrian officials are trumpeting the king's visit as a reflection of Damascus's revived regional importance after years in the Arab political wilderness. It is a position they clearly relish. "We've overcome the period of tension, and this visit will be significant in helping achieve calm and stability in the region," said Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the Syrian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

Saudi and Syrian officials say the two leaders will discuss the three-month-old deadlock in Lebanon over the formation of a new government, and stalemated reconciliation talks between the two main Palestinian political parties that U.S. officials say impedes the resumption of Mideast peace talks. The two Arab heavyweight nations support opposite sides in these power-sharing squabbles, and it is hoped that the growing rapprochement between the king and Mr. Assad will help to resolve the impasses.

Syria has been Tehran's closest Arab ally since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, a situation that has never sat well in Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Bashar Assad

Saudi-Syrian relations collapsed following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a billionaire who was close to the Saudi royal family and held dual citizenship. A special United Nations tribunal is investigating the killing, but many Lebanese and Saudis believe Syrian officials had a role in the murder, a claim Damascus denies. In 2008, relations were so bitter that King Abdullah boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus.

However, as Saudi Arabia has seen its regional clout in Arab affairs sink in the face of growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Riyadh has moved to re-engage with Damascus. In August, a new Saudi ambassador took up his post in Damascus after an 18-month absence, and the king welcomed President Assad as a guest of honor at the inauguration of a new Saudi research university last month.

The Saudi overtures to Mr. Assad have come in tandem with warming diplomatic ties between Syria and the West, namely France and the U.S. These three countries are hoping enhanced economic and security relations will lead to changes in Syria's regional policies.

Regional officials point to a meeting last week between Lebanon's prime-minister designate, Saudi ally Saad Hariri, and his political opponent Michel Aoun, who is close to Syria, as evidence that cooperation between the two larger countries can yield a political breakthrough there.

The Saudi leadership, which frequently uses its enormous oil wealth to build alliances, expects the king's personal visit to underscore the benefits of Arab cooperation.

Some Syrian analysts are less optimistic about the impact of the summit. "The Saudis won't cut Syrian-Iranian ties but at least they are going to try and marginalize Iran slightly," said Mazen Bilal, a Damascus-based political analyst.

During his visit, the Saudi monarch is also expected to visit Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo.

Write to Margaret Coker at

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