MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: Syria and Saudi Arabia: Collaboration and Conflicts in the Oil Era

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Syria and Saudi Arabia: Collaboration and Conflicts in the oil Era, by Sonoko Sunayama. London, UK and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007. viii + 223 pages. Notes to p. 240. Bibl. to p. 258. Index to p. 269. $79.95.

Reviewed by Joseph A. Kechichian

When the Syrian Vice-President Faruq al-Shara' recently stated that Saudi foreign policy was "virtually paralyzed," allegedly because Riyadh had expressed serious differences with Damascus over Lebanon and Palestine, an official Al Sa'ud statement responded to the vitriolic criticisms as "lies and fallacies." Saudi Arabia rejected Syrian claims that it had lost influence in the Middle East as it engaged in yet another diplomatic spat with the Arab world's most troubled regime. Sonoko Sunayama confirms this atmosphere even if the author's focus is on an earlier period when more mature minds set Syrian policy.

Sunayama has written a useful book that tackles Syrian-Saudi relations, focusing on the 1978-1990 period. She concentrates on three major issues: the Camp David Accords, the successive crises in Lebanon, and the Syrian-Iranian strategic axis. Valuable discussions of key Arab Summits, perennial intra-Arab disputes, and devastating diplomatic confrontations are also analyzed from a historical perspective. The author concludes that Syria and Saudi Arabia "succeeded in maintaining a working relationship...because their chief sources of legitimacy, or their priority identities" of Arabism and Islam were complementary, not confrontational (p. 9). Damascus, maintains Sunayama, needed Riyadh "because of - rather than in spite of - their differences" (p. 215; italics in original).

This need-base preference notwithstanding, Sunayama painstakingly highlights how Syria leveraged its policies to extract significant financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, while it seldom pursued policy goals espoused by the hand that literally fed it.

The author glosses over numerous rows between the two protagonists-cum-allies, attributing these to Syrian political genius, which knew the price of every accord without assessing their true value. Parenthetically, while Saudi financial largesse towards Syria is discussed liberally throughout the text, the reader is not apprised of the total sums during the period under discussion. A few tables and charts would have been revelatory.

To her credit, Sunayama focuses on the 1973 Damascus-Riyadh-Cairo Axis as the apex of these ties, emphasizing how nationalist policies, not "the closeness of personalities at the leadership level" (p. 41), were responsible for this amicability. While there is some truth to this assertion, Arab political affairs tend to be driven by powerful personalities - including that vociferously practiced by the formidable Hafiz al-Asad - who, more often than not, deemed institutional interests to be subservient to his predilections. …