King Abdullah in Damascus as relations thaw

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrived in Syria in a sign of warming ties between the two Arab states, after relations deteriorated over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the 2005 assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri.


AFP - Saudi King Abdullah began a two-day visit to Syria on Wednesday, his first since acceding to the throne in 2005, in a further sign of warming ties between the two Arab states.

He was welcomed at the airport by President Bashar al-Assad, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

He was accompanied by Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, Labour Minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi, Culture and Information Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja and other members of the Saudi royal family, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Relations between Damascus and Riyadh deteriorated in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq over Saudi support for the United States.

Abdullah's trip confirms the improving ties between Damascus and Riyadh, long rivals for influence in the Arab world whose relations soured further after the allegedly Syrian-linked 2005 murder of Lebanon's ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Hariri, who also held Saudi nationality, was close to the monarchy in the oil-rich Gulf state and had extensive business interests in the kingdom.

Riyadh has likewise been at odds with Damascus over its warm relations with Saudi Arabia's rival Iran and its support for Lebanon's Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

In early July, Riyadh named a new ambassador to Syria after leaving the post vacant for a year and a visit to Damascus by Abdullah has been in the works since that time, according to Saudi officials.

"A trip by the king of Saudi Arabia to Syria is very significant, certainly for inter-Arab relations," Hady Amr of the Brookings Doha Centre thinktank told AFP.

Abdullah and Assad are expected to discuss festering regional issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how to help keep Iraq stable as US troops withdraw.

The Riyadh-Damascus rapprochement comes at the same time as a cautious warming takes place between Damascus and Saudi ally Washington under President Barack Obama.

"It's not surprising that this meeting is taking place during the Obama administration," said Amr. "The US wants to bring Syria more into the fold."

Assad and Abdullah have met several times in regional forums since Abdullah became king, although there have been no official visits until now.

Analysts say ties began to improve at an Arab summit in Kuwait in January and a second in March when outrage over Israel's turn of the year invasion of Gaza became the basis for greater unity among Arab leaders on regional issues.

Abdullah pushed hard to gain support from Assad and other Arab leaders for the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative -- a two-country solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- which the Saudis first launched in 2002.

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