Saudi Arabia hosts landmark Iran, Syria visits after years of bitter divisions

Saudi Arabia hosts landmark Iran, Syria visits after years of bitter divisions

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Saudi Arabia hosted landmark delegations from Iran and Syria on Wednesday as Gulf countries prepare for re-establishing diplomatic ties after years of bitter divisions.

Only hours after Iranian state media said a delegation had touched down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced the arrival of Syria’s foreign minister in Jeddah — the first such trip since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met with his Saudi counterpart and discussed “the necessary steps to achieve a complete political settlement to the Syrian crisis”, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

The aim is to achieve “a national reconciliation and… bring back Syria to its Arab fold and resume its natural role in the Arab world”, the statement said.

The two diplomats also confirmed that steps would be take to resume consular services, and also announced plans to resume flights between their countries.

With Iran’s president also expected in Saudi soon, and the Saudis negotiating with Yemen’s Huthi rebels this week in an attempt to end fighting there, optimism has blossomed for the turbulent Gulf region during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Iranians and Syrians are in Saudi Arabia on the same day. That’s totally crazy and was inconceivable a few months ago,” a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat told AFP.

On Friday, representatives of nine Arab countries will meet in Jeddah to discuss letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s long-isolated country attend an Arab League summit next month.

Before then, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will meet his Saudi counterpart to discuss “efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves the unity, security and stability of Syria”, the Saudi foreign ministry said.

Diplomatic flurry

Earlier, Tehran announced the arrival of the Iranian delegation in Riyadh to pave the way for reopening diplomatic missions, seven years after an acrimonious break in ties.

The visit comes after a Saudi delegation made a similar trip to Iran’s capital, and follows a historic meeting in China between the two governments’ foreign ministers who vowed to bring stability to the troubled region.

“The Iranian delegation will take the necessary steps to reopen the embassy in Riyadh and the consulate general in Jeddah as well as the activities of Iran’s permanent representative in the (Jeddah-based) Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said in a statement.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has been invited to Saudi Arabia, according to Tehran. It would be the first trip by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended a regional meeting in Mecca in 2012.

The flurry of diplomatic activity follows last month’s landmark, Chinese-brokered announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have backed opposing sides in conflicts around the Middle East, would work towards resuming ties.

Riyadh broke off relations in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr — one in a series of flashpoints between the long-time foes.

Since the March 10 announcement, the two countries’ foreign ministers have met in China and a Saudi technical delegation met Iran’s chief of protocol in Tehran last week, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The Saudi delegation, which arrived in Tehran on Saturday, is due to fly on to Iran’s second city Mashhad on Thursday, Kanani said.

Yemen truce talks

As the contacts grow, Saudi Arabia is also negotiating with Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels, eight years after launching a military intervention aimed at dislodging them from power in its impoverished neighbour.

Saudi ambassador Mohammed Al-Jaber travelled to Sanaa, Yemen’s rebel-held capital, this week hoping to “stabilise” a lapsed truce and work towards a “comprehensive political solution” between the Huthis and the ousted government.

Saudi Arabia gathered a multinational coalition to fight the Huthis in 2015, after the rebels took control of Sanaa and large swathes of the country, forcing the government to flee.

Yemen has become a major battleground and the two countries also vie for influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, now wants to exit the eight-year war to focus on domestic projects aimed at diversifying its energy-dependent economy.

Washington has cautiously welcomed the rapprochement between the Saudis and US adversary Iran despite the role of China, which it sees as its biggest global challenger.


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