RIYADH — Saudi Arabia hosted landmark delegations from Iran and Syria on Wednesday as Gulf countries prepare for re-establishing diplomatic ties after years of bitter divisions.
Only hours after Iranian state media said a delegation had touched down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced the arrival of Syria’s foreign minister in Jeddah — the first such trip since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011.
With Iran’s president also expected in Saudi soon, and the Saudis negotiating with Yemen’s Houthi rebels this week in an attempt to end fighting there, some in the turbulent Gulf region are hoping this will herald calmer times ahead.
“Iranians and Syrians are in Saudi Arabia on the same day. That’s totally crazy and was inconceivable a few months ago,” a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat told AFP.
On Friday, representatives of nine Arab countries will meet in Jeddah to discuss letting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s long-isolated country attend an Arab League summit next month.
Before then, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will meet his Saudi counterpart to discuss “efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves the unity, security and stability of Syria,” the Saudi foreign ministry said.
Earlier, Tehran announced the arrival of the Iranian delegation in Riyadh to pave the way for reopening diplomatic missions, seven years after an acrimonious break in ties.
The visit comes after a Saudi delegation made a similar trip to Iran’s capital, and follows a historic meeting in China between the two governments’ foreign ministers who vowed to bring stability to the troubled region.
“The Iranian delegation will take the necessary steps to reopen the embassy in Riyadh and the consulate general in Jeddah as well as the activities of Iran’s permanent representative in the (Jeddah-based) Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said in a statement.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has been invited to Saudi Arabia, according to Tehran. It would be the first trip by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended a regional meeting in Mecca in 2012.
The flurry of diplomatic activity follows last month’s landmark, Chinese-brokered announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have backed opposing sides in conflicts around the Middle East, would work towards resuming ties.
Riyadh broke off relations in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr — one in a series of flashpoints between the long-time foes.
Since the March 10 announcement, the two countries’ foreign ministers have met in China and a Saudi technical delegation met Iran’s chief of protocol in Tehran last week, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The Saudi delegation, which arrived in Tehran on Saturday, is due to fly on to Iran’s second city Mashhad on Thursday, Kanani said.
As the contacts grow, Saudi Arabia is also negotiating with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, eight years after launching a military intervention aimed at dislodging them from power in its impoverished neighbor.
Saudi ambassador Mohammed Al-Jaber traveled to Sanaa, Yemen’s rebel-held capital, this week hoping to “stabilize” a lapsed truce and work towards a “comprehensive political solution” between the Houthis and the ousted government.
Saudi Arabia gathered a multinational coalition to fight the Houthis in 2015, after the rebels took control of Sanaa and large swathes of the country, forcing the government to flee.
Yemen has become a major battleground and the two countries also vie for influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, now wants to exit the eight-year war to focus on domestic projects aimed at diversifying its energy-dependent economy.
Washington has cautiously welcomed the rapprochement between the Saudis and US adversary Iran despite the role of China, which it sees as its biggest global challenger.
Israel has looked on in alarm, worried that the Saudis are moving further away from normalization with the Jewish state to improve ties with Tehran, while striking a blow to Jerusalem’s efforts to form a regional alliance of Arab nations against Iran.