Saudi Arabia hosts landmark Iran and Syria regime delegations as Middle East ties thaw
Only hours after Iranian state media said a delegation had touched down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced the arrival of the Syrian regime's foreign minister in Jeddah - the first such trip since the country's war broke out in 2011, when peaceful protests were brutally suppressed.
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.
#جدة | معالي نائب وزير الخارجية #وليد_الخريجي @W_Elkhereiji يستقبل معالي وزير الخارجية والمغتربين في الجمهورية العربية السورية الدكتور فيصل المقداد، وذلك لدى وصوله إلى مطار الملك عبدالعزيز في مدينة جدة pic.twitter.com/kEddMqqJly— وزارة الخارجية 🇸🇦 (@KSAMOFA) April 12, 2023
The two diplomats also confirmed that steps would be taken to resume consular services, and also announced plans to resume flights between the two countries.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 following regime leader Bashar al-Assad's brutal onslaught on peaceful protesters and later opposition towns, killing close to 500,000 Syrians and leaving millions more displaced.
With Iran's president also expected in Saudi soon and Riyadh negotiating with Yemen's Houthi 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 Assad's long-isolated country attend an Arab League summit next month.
Before then, 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.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen broadcaster, which is considered pro-Syrian regime, also added that Mekdad will head to both Algeria and Tunisia during his upcoming tour of North Africa, citing an official Algerian source.
The visits come following an announcement on Wednesday by both Damascus and Tunis that the Syrian regime will reopen its diplomatic mission in the North African country, after more than a decade.
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 Saudi officials 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 Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr - one in a series of flashpoints between the long-time foes.
Since the 10 March 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.
As the contacts grow, Saudi Arabia is also negotiating with Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi 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 Houthis and the ousted government.
Saudi Arabia gathered a multinational coalition to fight the Houthis in 2015, after the rebels took control of Sanaa and large swathes of the country, forcing the government to flee.
Riyadh has been subjected to international criticism over its coalition, as many of its airstrikes have killed civilians- including children -, and destroyed hospitals, schools and markets.
Yemen has become a major battleground and the two countries also vie for influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Analysts say that 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.