After years of heightened tension, Syrian-Saudi relations seem to be improving finally. The first step in the rapprochement was taken during the Arab economic summit in Kuwait last January.

In an emotional speech at the summit, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for Arab unity after the Israeli aggression on Gaza. Abdullah's initiative, which seemed to have come out of the blue, was a pleasant surprise for some and less so for others.

Damascus welcomed the new Saudi position and decided to heed the king's call with caution, though. Given the fundamental differences between the two countries, rapprochement after all would not be as easy as one might expect.

For 50 years, at least since the establishment of the Baghdad Pact in 1955, Syrian-Saudi relations have been fraught with suspicion. The case has never been as clear as it appeared over the past few years, when the two countries took completely different positions on a number of issues, including Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran's rising regional influence.

In 2006, for example, the foreign ministers of the two countries traded barbs over whether Hezbollah bore any responsibility for the escalation in violence that followed its capture of two Israeli soldiers. More recently, the two countries differed on who was responsible for the Israeli aggression on Gaza.

These interpretations reflected profound differences in the two countries' worldview and interests.

Syria and Saudi Arabia have in fact two different political systems; different historical experiences and different domestic conditions. They deal with different threats and hence they pursue different foreign policy objectives.

Saudi Arabia has always maintained close ties with the US and relied on it for security.

Syria, by contrast, is ruled by more leftist elite; and given its bitter experience with European colonialism has always had difficult relations with the West.

These differences were crystal clear since the 1950s and up until the 1980s; wherein Syria and Saudi Arabia took different sides during the Iran-Iraq war.

Despite these differences, however, the two countries have always tried to keep a minimum degree of understanding.

The end of the Cold War and subsequent Middle Eastern events helped to bring them closer together.

In 1990, Syria surprised many when it joined the US and Saudi Arabia in a broad coalition to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait.

In 1996 the two countries, alongside Egypt, formed the so-called "tripartite axis" to face the challenges to peace posed by then rightwing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The tripartite axis survived until the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation from south Lebanon in 2000. Since then differences between the two countries floated on the surface and Lebanon and peace in the Middle East were key to them.

Saudi Arabia supported the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, whereas Syria supported his principal rival, president Emile Lahoud.

The Saudi peace initiative, announced during the Beirut Arab summit, caused further tension between the two countries. At that time, Crown Prince Abdullah offered normal diplomatic and economic relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from the 1967 occupied Arab territories.

The conflict between Syria and Saudi Arabia became open only after the assassination of Hariri. The Saudi government joined forces with France and the US to expel the Syrians from Lebanon. The two countries took also different sides in the power struggle in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Syria supported Hamas wherein Saudi Arabia supported president of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, calling upon the Islamic movement to recognise Israel and join the peace process.

The two countries differed also in dealing with Iran and Iraq. Despite that Saudi Arabia and Syria have both opposed the US invasion of Iraq; their policies widely diverged after the collapse of the Saddam regime.

Riyadh accepted the US occupation as a fact; Syria rejected it and supported the Iraqi resistance.

On Iran, the two countries are even in more disagreement, caused by their geopolitical interests as well as their ideological stand.

Geopolitically, Saudi Arabia is more concerned about Iran's regional ambitions and its quest for nuclear weapons. The revolutionary nature of the Iranian regime, reinvigorated by the ascendance of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been a source of worry in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has also complained about Iran's endeavour to establish a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq and is seen largely as a key oil exporting rival.

By contrast, Iran is Syria's major ally in the region. Given its geopolitical location, Syria does not seem to be concerned about Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions. Syria fears Israel more than Iran and the alliance with it is seen by Damascus as fundamental to its security and wellbeing.

In the light of all these differences, Syria and Saudi Arabia are bound to take different sides. Yet, the two countries seem to have finally realised that cooperation, rather than conflict, is the best way to tackle their security concerns. This requires a conflict management approach to deal with differences since solving them does not appear realistic at this particular juncture.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in Media and International Relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media.