Damascus Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz yesterday made his first visit to Syria since becoming his country's monarch, the strongest indication yet of thawing relations between the two rival nations following years of tension.

King Abdullah's visit is also the first by a Saudi ruler since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally. Syria was widely blamed for his death, which came only months before Abdullah became King, but Damascus has denied any responsibility.

Regional issues

The two countries have been at odds over several regional issues, including Syria's close ties with Iran. They have recently made moves toward a rapprochement with three meetings between Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the past two years.

The Syrian state-run daily Al Thawra wrote that the two leaders have "hot files" on their agenda: "Palestine and the suffering of Gaza, Lebanon and its need for national unity, and Iraq". It added that US President Barack Obama "needs help", noting that a joint Syrian-Saudi effort can help stabilise the region and push Middle East peace efforts forward. The mass readership independent Syrian website Syria-News added that the visit was a result of "monumental efforts" at bridging the gap between both countries, noting that in the days to come, "events will crown these efforts, signalling the end of an era, and start of a new day [in Syrian-Saudi relations]."

The two leaders signed an agreement on the avoidance of double taxation to boost economic ties.

Al Assad decorated King Abdullah with the Umayyad Order of Merit, the highest honour of the Syrian Republic.

King Abdullah reciprocated by decorating Al Assad with the King Abdul Aziz Medal, at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Damascus.