Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 7 Table of Contents
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July 2003 

The Syrian-Saudi Arabian Nexus
by Esam Sohail
Esam Sohail is a former college lecturer of international affairs, a banker by trade, and a contributor to publications such as The Jerusalem Post and The Daily Star (Beirut). He resides in Kansas.

Assad and Saud al-Faisal

On the surface, Saudi Arabia and Syria have little in common. The former is an archconservative, Islamic fundamentalist monarchy and traditional ally of the United States for three-quarters of a century; the latter is a secular, socialist dictatorship that has had a permanent berth for the last twenty-four years on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. However, astute pragmatism often blurs ideological polarity in the Middle East.

Syrian-Saudi relations have been among the closest in the Arab world since the late 1960s, when Riyadh contributed petro-dollars to the rebuilding of Syria's armed forces, shattered in the 1967 war with Israel. Subsequently the Kingdom has been a regular, if not always consistent, financial backer of the Baathist regime. The assistance peaked in 1991 in the aftermath of Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq coalition in the first Gulf War. A grateful Saudi Arabia underwrote a lion's share of the five billion-dollar aid package created by the wealthier allies for Syrian dictator Hafez Assad (who, incidentally, used most of it to purchase Russian weaponry).[1]

Dollars and Diplomacy

The Saudi embrace of Damascus, however, has involved more than cold cash, especially in the case of Syrian intervention in neighboring Lebanon. Thanks to some gentle arm twisting by the Kingdom's forceful diplomats at the Riyadh summit of the Arab League in 1976, Syria forces intervened in Lebanon under the mantle of legitimacy of the "Arab Peacekeeping Force." When the occupation became too much for Syria to countenance, the Saudis again used their influence to convene the 1989 Taif summit of Lebanese MPs and convinced them to accept a "national reconciliation" agreement that legitimized Syrian hegemony.

Since then, the Saudis continued their role in partially underwriting the Syrian army's stay in Lebanon by propping up its puppet government with economic aid. Lebanon emerged from last year's Paris II donor conference with $700 million in Saudi aid. In addition, wealthy Saudis continue to invest in Lebanon despite its moribund economy. In July 2002, for instance, Al-Walid bin Talal opened the $140 million Movenpick hotel in Beirut.

Saudi largesse also helps the Syrian regime maintain order at home without introducing fundamental economic and political reforms. Due to nearly four decades of socialist economic policies, the Baathist regime presides over a society whose development indicators are similar to Third World backwaters.[2] Its oil reserves, which account for a third of its GDP, are dwindling while its population burgeons. Unlike other developing economies with cash flow problems, Syria has generally refused to seek help from the World Bank and IMF (consequentially, it adheres to no structural reform program endorsed by international financial institutions). Rather, most of the relief that shores up this tottering economy on a day to day basis comes from three principal sources: Remittances from Syrians working in the Gulf (where Saudi Arabia is their biggest employer), economic exploitation of Lebanon (where Saudis help underwrite the cost of the occupation), and direct aid from Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, Kuwait).

Just days after Bashar Assad's ascension as president in July 2000, four Saudi investment companies formed a consortium to invest $100 million in Syria. The inherently political nature of Saudi aid was also evident following the June 2002 Zeyzoun dam disaster, which left over 20 dead and damaged 60 square kilometers of farmland. With the government facing widespread (albeit hushed) criticism for failing to adequately maintain Syria's once impressive Soviet era infrastructure, Prince Al-Walid bin Talal toured the disaster area and pledged to "reconstruct the entire village of Zeyzoun and all its infrastructure of water, electricity, telephone and sewage systems." Naturally, Assad returned the favor by renaming Zeyzoun "Prince Al-Walid bin Talal Village."[3]

Taken together, these Saudi blessed hard currency generators help Syria keep the balance of payments current. Their importance to Syria's fiscal health can hardly be overestimated given that her debt level hovers around 21 billion dollars, more than three percent of the GDP goes towards debt servicing, and the GDP itself has shown minimal to negative growth since the mid-nineties.[4]

Quid pro quo

Pragmatism in international relations is a two way street. Help by the monarchist Saudis to the socialist Syrians is hardly pure charity. For starters, helping out a 'frontline' state serves to undercut the domestic and Islamist criticism that the rich Saudis do not care about confronting Israel. It also bolsters the Saudi claim to be a benevolent Arab-Islamic leader that is always there to help the less fortunate cousins.

More importantly, the Saudi largesse is useful in renting Syrian military muscle. Tested by near-continuous engagement in several Arab-Israeli wars, vigorous internal policing, and action in Lebanon, Syrian troops contrast sharply with the inexperienced and largely inefficient Saudi military. This battle-hardened Arab-Muslim force is a low-premium insurance against a day that the Americans decide to leave the Saudis to defend themselves against external threat. It is little surprise, according to The National Security of Saudi Arabia author Joseph Kechichian, that the Syrians stayed put in Saudi Arabia after most other Desert Storm coalition partners had left at the end of the first Gulf War.

Since the mid-1990s, the Saudis have also relied upon help from Syria's intelligence apparatus. To bolster his claims of succession against his half-brothers (and King Fahd's full brothers), Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, decided to cash in on some of his government's favors to his wife's kinsman, the late Hafez Assad: Soviet- and East German trained covert operatives of Syrian intelligence were brought in to lend their services. Nominally there to help train the praetorian National Guard that Abdullah commands, the Syrian intelligence network in the Kingdom soon became identified as a weapon in his arsenal if and when sibling rivalry broke out in earnest for the throne, which is still held tenuously by the ailing King Fahd. Abdullah's gambit also gave an opportunity to Syria to solidify its presence in what is presumably the most important American ally in the region.[5] The most visible consequence of the Syrian-Saudi détente was described later thus by a British newspaper:

Syrian intelligence officers played a key role in last year's bombing of the American military base in Saudi Arabia in which 19 US servicemen died. This is one of the central conclusions that has been reached by two inquiries into the bombing conducted by American and Saudi officials.[6]
The FBI fumed, understandably, at Saudi non-cooperation in the Khobar Towers terrorist attack investigation while the Saudis, unsurprisingly, remained nonchalant.

Subsidizing Terror Inc.

The steady help by Saudi Arabia and her smaller neighbors in shoring up Syria's economic doldrums has allowed the Assad regime to spend its own money in a different kind of export development. Not only has Damascus provided office space and training camps for various Palestinian and Lebanese terror groups, but has now branched out into direct financial subsidy. Two offshoots of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are tied to a rogue Fatah commander in Syrian-controlled Lebanon, Mounir al-Maqdah, who has received "millions" from both Syria and Iran, according to Palestinian sources.[7] Hezbollah last year took possession of Syrian-supplied long-range rockets.

The implications of the Saudi-Syrian relationship for the United States have to be considered in the context of the on going war on terror. Syria, in spite of its occasional good deeds to ward off heavy pressure, has been extremely uncooperative in the fight against terror. The Saudis, long considered faithful Western allies, are being discovered as less than forthright in their endeavors as well.

The evidence suggests that either directly, or in a circuitous manner, the Saudis have subsidized Syria's continuation of two particular policies that have a direct bearing on terrorism: the occupation of Lebanon and the hosting of terror groups in Damascus. Added to that, Prince Abdullah's personal and political Syrian connections have led to a troubling Syrian presence in the heart of the Arabian peninsula itself.

To assume that time will straighten out the problem by the resurgence of the fundamental ideological difference between Riyadh and Damascus is wishful thinking. Ideology is often trumped by the needs of realpolitik. In fact, time may just exacerbate the problem. Known as a pan-Arabist nationalist and markedly less fond of the West than his half-brothers, Crown Prince Abdullah may well draw ever closer to his wife's Syrian family as King. Under Saudi succession rules, King Abdullah will have exclusive rights to name a successor and it is not unlikely that he may pick his Syrian-Saudi son rather than the presumed third in line, Prince Sultan. This open alliance between an Arab nationalist Saudi monarch and a terror-sponsoring Damascus regime - a marriage of money and muscle cemented by family ties - is likely to endure for the foreseeable future.


  [1] Forbes, 31 July 1995.
  [2] Steve Plaut, The Coming Economic Collapse of Syria, Middle East Quarterly, September 1999.
  [3] Saudi rescue for Syria flood village, BBC, 17 June 2002.
  [4] World Bank Development Database, Syria Country Report 2003.
  [5] David Wurmser, The Saudi Connection, The Weekly Standard, 29 October 2001 .
  [6] The Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1997.
  [7] Michael Levitt, Syrian Sponsorship of Global Terrorism: The Need for Accountability, Policywatch, No. 660, September 2002.

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