DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – Saudi Arabia’s king on Wednesday made his first visit to Syria since becoming monarch, the strongest indication yet of thawing relations between the two rival nations following years of tension.
King Abdullah’s visit is also the first by a Saudi ruler since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally. Syria was widely blamed for his death, which came only months before Abdullah became king, but Damascus has denied any responsibility.
The two Arab countries have also been at odds over several regional issues, including Syria’s close ties with Shiite Muslim Iran. They have recently made moves toward a rapprochement with three meetings between Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the past two years.
Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Wednesday’s talks between Abdullah and Assad focused on the need for Arab solidarity in view of the numerous challenges facing the Arab world — particularly the recent unrest in Jerusalem and Israeli attacks against Palestinians.
“Syrian-Saudi relations are headed toward excellent progress,” she told reporters at the palace, describing the meeting as “positive and constructive.”
The state-run news agency SANA said the two leaders expressed their will to improve ties by “removing all obstacles standing in the way of better relations and opening new horizons for cooperation in a way that serves the two countries interests.”
Many hope a full reconciliation will help ease tensions in the region, which has in the past few years been split into two camps with Saudi Arabia and other U.S. regional allies on one side and Syria — an ally of Iran and the militant Hamas and Hezbollah groups — on the other.
The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan boycotted an Arab summit held in Syria last year, accusing Syria of working to destabilize Lebanon, which had become the site of a proxy struggle for control between both camps.
Relations have improved since then, with Saudi Arabia appointing an ambassador to Damascus in July, a post that had been vacant since 2008.
Abdullah was met at Damascus Airport by Assad Wednesday, and the two headed straight to the presidential palace for talks. The two leaders exchanged their countries highest national medals, which Shaaban said reflected “deep mutual respect and appreciation.”
Syria’s state-controlled media trumpeted the two-day visit, which Tishreen newspaper said was cause for “hope and optimism.”
The official Saudi Press Agency said only that the visit was in response to an invitation extended to the king by Assad.
The Sunni Arab world’s top powers, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are eager to block regional rival Iran’s influence in the Middle East and have been trying to engage Syria after years of shunning it in anger over what they see as its role in fueling turmoil around the Mideast.
In early March, Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Assad in a mini-summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, hoping to patch up the rift.
Assad also visited the kingdom last month to attend the opening of a university.
Attempts to peel Syria away from Iran however have so far been unsuccessful.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt also have other motives for talking to Syria. The administration of President Barack Obama is starting to open up to Damascus, which Washington treated as a pariah for the past eight years because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Assad has also been enjoying renewed attention from European leaders and has sought to repair years of isolationist policies by moving closer to the region. Syria has recently sent signals that it would be willing to work with the international community on the Mideast’s hot spots.
There is much hope in neighboring Lebanon that a reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia will have a positive effect on attempts to form a government, an effort that has been stalled since June parliamentary elections.