Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended the Arab League summit hosted by Saudi Arabia on Friday, marking a significant shift in regional relations and signalling a change in Saudi policy towards Syria that goes against Western opposition.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia warmly greeted Assad, symbolising an end to Syria’s isolation and highlighting a broader trend of Arab reconciliation and rapprochement in the Middle East. China has played a significant role in facilitating the improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, further contributing to this positive shift.
Although Assad’s presence at the summit received criticism, it showcased Saudi Arabia’s growing diplomatic influence. The summit also saw the attendance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, further highlighting the event’s significance.
During the summit, Assad emphasised Syria’s Arab identity and indirectly criticized Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. He raised concerns about the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought” influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group viewed unfavourably by Damascus and several Arab states but supported by the Turkish government.
Crown Prince Mohammed expressed optimism that Syria’s return to the Arab League would contribute to resolving the crisis. However, the United States opposes the normalization of relations and emphasizes the need for a political solution as a priority.
Arab states are particularly interested in securing Assad’s cooperation in addressing the narcotics trade originating from Syria, which has had a severe impact on the country’s economy. Despite U.S. sanctions, the Gulf investment remains crucial for Syria’s recovery.