The sight of an Arab leader clambering out of an aircraft to begin a two-day official visit to another Arab country does not normally stir much excitement.

But the long-awaited appearance of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was one of those rare events that clearly flags the arrival of changing times, and raises hopes of better ones.

The two countries have played leading roles on opposite sides of the sharp rift that has divided the Arab World in recent years, at odds over every one of the region’s many intractable and interlinked problems.

For the past three decades, Syria has had a close and solid strategic relationship with non-Arab Iran, seen by the Saudis as a malign regional influence and an instigator of tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is one of Washington’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, and a bastion of Sunni conservativism.

After several years of growing tension, the rupture between Damascus and Riyadh was sealed in 2005 with the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, a Saudi citizen and political protege of the king.

Syria was widely blamed, though it denied responsibility.

Lebanese expectant

Since then, no arena has been more obviously vulnerable to the vagaries and tensions of the Saudi-Syrian relationship than Lebanon, where Syria backs the Iranian-supported Hezbollah and its opposition allies, while the Saudis are deeply involved with the pro-Western coalition now headed by Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad.

Currently Prime Minister-designate, Saad Hariri, has for nearly four months been striving to put together a national unity government following legislative elections in June, in which his coalition came out narrowly ahead of Hezbollah and its opposition allies.

Lebanese political and media circles are attaching huge significance to the Saudi monarch’s visit to Syria.

There is a widespread belief that a new Saudi-Syrian understanding will encourage the rapid formation of the new Lebanese government, with predictions that it could happen as early as the end of next week.

The assumption is that King Abdullah would not have gone to Syria unless the rapprochement process had not already made a lot of headway, and the trip itself is clearly expected to consolidate and boost that process further.

Peace process

The reconciliation moves began with a positive encounter at the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait in January, followed by a mini-summit with Egypt in Riyadh in March.
By July, the Saudis had decided to send an ambassador back to Damascus after a year-long absence.

And late last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Jeddah, after much 11th-hour hesitation, to attend the inauguration of the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, holding a long, informal meeting with the monarch.
An entente between these two key players could clearly have beneficial implications for many of the region’s crises, though the impact might not be as immediately felt as it is expected to be in Beirut.

As in Lebanon, the two have been backing different sides in the dispute between Palestinian factions, with the Syrians supporting and hosting Hamas and other militant groups opposed to the US-backed peace process, and the Saudis backing the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Even if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement gains further ground, nobody really expects the Syrians to break with their Iranian allies.

A Saudi-Syrian rapprochement could clearly encourage the continuing effort to bring about inter-Palestinian reconciliation, as a necessary precursor to any revival of serious peace moves with Israel.

Egypt is driving the Palestinian entente process and hopes to conclude it in Cairo on 26 October.

But if Syria remained out in the cold and motivated to spoil, the prospects for an accord being concluded successfully would be slight.

A similar agreement between the Palestinians, sponsored by the Saudis at the height of their breach with Damascus two years ago, was signed but rapidly went up in flames.

US overtures

As well as generally benefitting the regional peace process, there are also hopes that a Saudi-Syrian understanding would impact positively on the general Arab position, which has been in disarray in recent years.

An Arab peace plan engineered by the Saudis was approved at a summit in Beirut in 2002, but has been left by the wayside because (among other obstacles) the Arabs lacked the collective will to push it forward.

Now it is back on the table, and Arab commentators have expressed optimism that entente between Riyadh and Damascus could help invigorate the pan-Arab role.

There is also speculation that the Saudis might build on this progress to tackle another of the knots that is preventing the Arabs from taking muscular collective positions – the coolness between Syria and that other major Arab player, Egypt.

Even if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement gains further ground, nobody really expects the Syrians to break with their Iranian allies.

But that contradiction, which has survived for so long and often has not been a particular problem in inter-Arab affairs, might diminish in significance should the Iranians continue to respond positively to Western concerns over their nuclear programme, following the relatively positive outcome of last week’s seven-party talks in Geneva.

Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran are also of course immediate neighbours to that other land of unresolved crisis, Iraq.

The US, bent on drawing down their forces there and focusing more heavily on Afghanistan, is eager to foster a spirit of cooperation and non-interference by Iraq’s neighbours.

They also include Nato-ally Turkey, which has been actively involved in encouraging the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement.

The Syrians have been loudly accused by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, of permitting Islamist militants to cross the border and carry out bomb attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere – a charge Damascus denies.

Behind the reconciliation moves, and explaining their timing, is the vast background sea-change that is affecting the region as the US shifts gear from the divisive, confrontational policies of George W Bush to the more conciliatory approach adopted by Barack Obama.

Washington itself has been making overtures to both Damascus and Tehran, providing a propitious climate for the Saudi opening to Syria.