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Fearful of Iran's influence, Saudi king reaches out to Syria

Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has switched from a policy of isolation toward engagement. Some hope the warming could bolster US Middle East peace efforts.

By Julien Barnes-DaceyCorrespondent / October 7, 2009

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah greets guests at the opening of a university of science and technology in his name on Sept. 23.

Scott Nelson/AP

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Damascus, Syria

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arrived here Wednesday to mend fences with Syria and strengthen regional cooperation in a move that some hope could advance President Barack Obama's Middle East peace plans.

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The two day visit by the king – his first since he took power in 2005 – will focus on unrest in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, where political rivals backed by the two countries are wrangling over power. The Saudi monarch and close US ally is also seeking to nudge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of Iran's diplomatic orbit toward closer cooperation with fellow Arab states.

The visit is the latest sign of a thaw in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which went into deep freeze after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Mr. Hariri was a close friend of the king's family, and Saudi Arabia and many others believe that Syria ordered his murder, a charge Damascus has denied.

"The trip is very significant, given the negative mood that has prevailed in Syrian-Saudi relations over the last couple of years," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, who argues that the visit could bring peace closer between Israel and its Arab neighbors. "This is very positive news for the region."

The Syrians have laid on a lavish welcome for Abdullah, whose delegation has commandeered two of Damascus's largest hotels, in a manner that is reflective of the dramatic improvement in ties with the region's political and economic powerhouse. "Today… the Saudi king in the heart of Arabism," screamed Wednesday's morning Al-Watan newspaper, a Syrian daily, devoting its whole front page to the visit.

Stunning turnaround

After the Hariri assassination, always fragile Arab unity appeared to come apart at the seams, with close US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt – nervous about Shiite Iran's growing regional influence – at odds with Syria, which formed a self-proclaimed resistance alliance with Iran to oppose Israel and provide support to the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2008, things were so bad that an Arab League summit in Damascus was boycotted by the Saudi and Egyptian leaders.

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