Syria normalisation is key to Saudi's new foreign policy
After more than 12 years of being suspended, the Arab League has voted to welcome back the Syrian regime on 7th May with certain conditions, including the return of Syrian refugees without retributions, a credible political process that leads to elections and measures to stop the smuggling of narcotics from Syria into neighbouring countries.
The Saudi-Syrian normalisation undoubtedly played a significant role in opening the door for Syria’s return to the League after the February earthquake and Iranian-Saudi normalisation process accelerated the official restoration of diplomatic ties between Damascus and Riyadh.
In April 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Syria more than a decade after the Kingdom ended diplomatic relations with Damascus in 2011. The decrease in hostilities between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Syria was nevertheless present for several years now.
In May 2021, Syrian Minister of Tourism Rami Martini travelled to the Saudi kingdom for the first official visit of a Syrian delegation to Saudi Arabia following the eruption of the uprising. The motivations behind Riyadh’s decision to rehabilitate Damascus is connected to national objectives and regional dynamics.
"There is a willingness by Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to consolidate a form of authoritarian stability in the region. Despite continuous rivalries among various states in the region, they hold a common position in wanting to return to a situation similar to that in place before the uprisings in 2011"
The end of smuggling of Captagon, which exploded in production over the last decade, is a priority of the Saudi Kingdom. Between 2016 and 2022, the Saudi authorities foiled attempts to smuggle more than 600 million amphetamine pills from Lebanon.
Much of the Captagon production and distribution is controlled by the Fourth Division and affiliated Syrian businessmen, who emerged during the war. In the beginning of May, in a meeting hosted by Jordan with envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Syria, Damascus agreed to "take the necessary steps to stop smuggling across the borders with Jordan and Iraq" and to work over the next month to identify producers and transporters of narcotics in those two countries.
But moreover, the normalisation process is the consequence of Saudi Arabia’s evolution in terms of foreign policy. The aggressive foreign policy of Crown Prince and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, represented by the war launched against Yemen in 2015 and maximum pressure against Iran, has been a failure.
This policy became too costly politically and a threat to its plans to reform the economy, attract foreign investors and open the country to tourists. Recently, Riyadh has therefore sought to establish more cordial relations with its neighbours.
"If re-occupying a seat in the Arab League is a win for Assad, it's a huge loss for all those fighting for accountability for the more than 130,000 imprisoned in Syrian regime prisons"— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 25, 2023
On the cost of possibly re-admitting Syria to the Arab League ⬇ https://t.co/8IxcRjqD2l
This started with the end of confrontational relations with Qatar and Turkey, and progressed with the historical political rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia through the mediation of China in the beginning of April.
Both states have stated since then their willingness to work together for "security, stability and prosperity" in the Middle East. This is particularly important for the KSA in order to stabilise the situation in Yemen and to prevent security threats at its southern border. This rapprochement should also allow the two countries to reopen their embassies by mid-May and to implement economic and security cooperation agreements signed more than 20 years ago.
This is also linked to Saudi’s perception that Washington can no longer provide the needed security to the Kingdom, particularly after the eruption of the uprisings in 2011. Moreover, the failure of the US invasion of Iraq and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 both dealt a severe economic blow to the prestige of the US neoliberal model.
This resulted in a relative global weakening of US power that not only left more room for other global imperialist forces such as China and Russia to act, but also benefited regional powers that acted increasingly more independently.
As a result of the relative weakening of US power, regional states such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have grown their influence and power in the region. The continuous decisions of Saudi leadership to maintain high oil prices and cut production symbolised this evolution in the relationship between Riyadh and Washington.
More generally, there is a willingness by Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to consolidate a form of authoritarian stability in the region. Despite continuous rivalries among various states in the region, they hold a common position in wanting to return to a situation similar to that in place before the uprisings in 2011.
In this framework, the normalisation process and restoration of ties with the Syrian regime is part of this plan. It goes hand in hand with other processes such as putting an end to democratic protests and attempts to contain Jihadist groups.
These changes in Saudi foreign policy are mainly connected to the need for the Kingdom to focus on economic reforms and the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030, which plans to end dependence on fossil fuels and reach USD 100 billion in annual FDI by 2030.
"While the UAE took the lead in normalising relations with Damascus, Saudi’s normalisation process with the Syrian regime has been a game changer"
While FDI flows to the Saudi kingdom have gradually slowed from a 200% increase between 2018 and 2019 to 20% between 2019 and 2020 as a result of political factors and lower oil prices, recent events, including Saudi-Iran normalisation, might reverse this trend.
The Saudi kingdom stated its plans to conclude Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) for many government services, including more traditionally social sectors such as education, housing and health. The Financial Times described the plans as "Saudi Thatcherism."
In April 2023, MBS launched four new "special economic zones" (SEZs) in order to generate the establishment of non-traditional industries, particularly related to the tourism, IT, renewable energy and logistics sectors. The new economic strategy places private capital at the centre of the future Saudi economy.
At the same time, the development of the tourism sector is one of the major axes of this diversification: Riyadh aims to reach 100 million visitors per year in 2030.
While the UAE took the lead in normalising relations with Damascus, Saudi’s normalisation process with the Syrian regime has been a game changer. The ongoing normalisation process of the Syrian regime with Saudi Arabia, and more generally in the region, must be understood within these regional dynamics.
These recent events do not mean, however, that Syria will witness in the short term any improvement for its population or future potential economic recovery and international support.
Rather, the reintegration of Damascus will primarily serve the interests of the authoritarian leaders across the region that are adamant on erasing the progress made by the 2011 uprisings.
Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".
Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.