Delegates from nine Arab nations are meeting in Saudi Arabia to discuss the possibility of normalising relations with Syria and its return to the Arab League.
Ministers and top officials from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – along with those of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan were to meet on Friday at Saudi Arabia’s request.
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Syria’s suspension from the Arab League was imposed after President Bashar al-Assad’s government launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Al-Assad has been shunned by many Middle Eastern countries and is a Western pariah over the 12-year war, which has killed more than half a million people and forced about half of Syria’s pre-war population from their homes.
Saudi Arabia, which has long resisted normalisation with al-Assad, said after a rapprochement with Iran, Syria’s key regional ally, a new approach was needed with Damascus.
Riyadh invited Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad for talks on Wednesday in a landmark visit and both countries agreed to reopen embassies soon.
Damascus and Riyadh are moving towards resuming flights and consular services for the first time since the war began.
Any recommendation to reinstate Syria in the 22-member Arab League, whose next meeting is due to be held in Saudi Arabia in May, is likely to draw protests from Western capitals.
However, on Thursday, the prime minister of Qatar poured cold water on talk of Syria’s possible return to the Arab League.
“There is nothing proposed, it is all speculation,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said in a television interview.
Saudi foreign policy analyst Abdulaziz Alghashian said expecting a “smooth entry for Syria back into the Arab League will be very much wishful thinking”.
“There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge. A lot of people haven’t forgotten what Assad has done,” he told Al Jazeera from Riyadh.
However, Alghashian said many people in the Arab world, especially the ruling elites, are looking “to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold in order for regional projects to continue”.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in restoring ties should be seen as part of its march towards Vision 2030 – a Saudi initiative that seeks to diversify and privatise the economy and to make it less reliant on oil.
“They’re trying to create a more investment-friendly environment for foreign direct investment, and that is really at the core of the Saudi ruling elite’s decision,” said Alghashian.
The Jeddah meeting is one of several initiatives following Saudi Arabia and Iran’s landmark, Chinese-brokered announcement on March 10 that they would resume ties, seven years after an acrimonious split.
Earlier on Friday, an exchange of nearly 900 prisoners from Yemen’s civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition got under way when the first flight left the rebel-controlled capital, Sanaa.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen this week held talks with Iran-backed Houthi rebels aimed at ending the devastating civil war, which has raged since the Saudi-led military intervention started in 2015.