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A Gradual Return: Dimensions of Al-Assad’s UAE Visit

On 18 March Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to meet with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE.

According to the Emirates News Agency (WAM), the visit is part of both countries’ shared interest to maintain close consultations and brotherly coordination on different issues, in keeping with their mutual interests and towards promoting peace, stability, and security in the Arab region and the Middle East. The statement issued by WAM indicated that the Syrian and Emirati leaders underscored the significance of preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, withdrawal of foreign forces, and providing political and humanitarian support to Syrians to reach a peaceful resolution to all the challenges that Syria faces. 

In this vein, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan underscored that Syria is a fundamental pillar of Arab security, and that the UAE is keen to strengthen cooperation with Damascus towards attaining aspirations of the Syrian people to stability and development. For his part, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid expressed the UAE’s keenness to discover new paths of constructive cooperation with Syria and identify opportunities to advance this cooperation for the common interests of the two brotherly peoples.

On the other hand, the statement issued by the Syrian Presidency highlighted assertions made by President Al-Assad on the major role the UAE plays given its balanced policies on international issues.

Notably, this was Al-Assad’s first visit to an Arab country since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 and suspension of Syria’s membership in the Arab League in November 2011. In many respects, the visit represented an about-turn in Al-Assad’s foreign trips, which were generally confined to Russia and Iran.

Re-Establishment of Emirati-Syrian Relations

Al-Assad’s visit can be seen as a culmination of rapprochement efforts made by both countries over the past three years. On 27 December 2018, Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus. Restoration of diplomatic relations opened the door for improving the economic relations, as has been evidenced by the convening of the UAE-Syrian Private Sector Forum in January 2019 by the Federation of UAE Chambers of Commerce and Industry in cooperation with the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry to explore avenues for strengthening investment and commercial cooperation between Emirati and Syrian entrepreneurs and defining available opportunities.

In this connection, heads and directors of the Syrian Chambers and Syrian entrepreneurs presented a review of the key investment opportunities in Syria, including investment in the tourism, service, industry, alternative energy, and construction sectors, as well as trade exchange and organization of economic exhibitions. Furthermore, in August 2019, about 40 Emirati businessmen took part in a trade fair in Damascus aimed at encouraging foreign investment in reconstruction efforts.

In March 2021, the Syrian-UAE relations witnessed a new development pertaining to the evolution of the UAE vision of the crisis, expressed in the press conference between Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, where he stressed the need to support Syria’s return to the Arab League, which requires an effort from both Syria as well as member states of the Arab League, underlining the complexity that the US sanctions pose to Syria.

In the months that followed the re-election of the Syrian president in May 2021, further meetings were held between Syrian and Emirati officials in the UAE, to discuss ways to deepen political and economic cooperation between the two countries, including a possible role for the UAE in rehabilitating and developing water networks and infrastructure in Syria. The Syrian-Emirati Joint Businessmen Council was reactivated at the end of October 2021, simultaneously with Syria’s participation in Expo 2020 in Dubai at the invitation of the UAE. On 20 October 2021, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi received a phone call from the Syrian President, in which they discussed the relations between the two countries and ways to enhance joint cooperation in various fields for their mutual interests and tackled developments of the situation in Syria and the Middle East as well as other issues of common interest.

In November 2021, the Syrian President received in Damascus the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, where the Emirati minister reiterated the UAE’s support for all the efforts made to put an end to the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in Syria, and meet Syrians’ aspirations of development, progress, and prosperity. For his part, Al-Assad commended the substantive positions taken by the UAE.

In the wake of this visit, the Syrian Ministry of Electricity and a range of Emirati companies signed a cooperation agreement to construct a 300-megawatt solar power plant in Rif-Dimashq, a project that is projected to take two years.

At the economic level, Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri indicated that the UAE is Syria’s most important trading partner (the first in the Arab world and the third globally), accounting for more than 14 percent of Syria’s foreign trade.

In 2020, the volume of trade exchange amounted to about $714.7 million, with Emirati exports accounting for about $666.8 million while the volume of Emirati imports from Syria totaled $48 million. According to Al-Marri, in the first half of 2021, the volume of non-oil trade exchange amounted to about AED 1 billion, while the value of Syrian direct investment in the UAE exceeded AED 1.5 billion at the end of 2019. On the sidelines of Expo 2020, the UAE- Syrian Business Council and the Umm Al Quwain Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed an agreement to stimulate cooperation and support trade exchange and economic relations between the business communities in Syria and the UAE.

At the humanitarian level, the UAE has hosted more than 130,000 Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. In his address to the conference of “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” held in March 2021, Khalifa Shaheen Al Marar, the UAE Minister of State and representative of donor countries and specialized humanitarian organizations and bodies, announced his country’s pledge of $30 million to support international efforts aimed at alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and providing the necessary funding for humanitarian activities. Al Marar stated that over the past ten years, the UAE has provided more than $1.11 billion in relief aid to Syrian refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Greece, which included the provision of food, shelter, and health care, as well as the establishment of field hospitals, the Emirati-Jordanian camp in Mrajeeb Al Fhood, and other camps in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and in Greece. Additionally, the UAE, along with Germany and the United States, is a founding partner of the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, with a contribution of $23.4 million directed towards supporting the stability of displaced Syrians.

Moreover, the UAE co-finance stabilization programs in northeastern Syria in cooperation with international partners in an amount of $50 million. With the spread of Covid-19, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan made a phone call, in March 2020, with the Syrian President expressing willingness to provide support to Syria, which translated into the UAE sending about five air shipments of medical aid, vaccines, sterilizers, and Covid-19 testing supplies.

Mutual Drivers

There are several factors that drive the Syrian and the Emirati sides to move towards rebuilding and strengthening their bilateral relationships. For Syria, Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE marks the beginning of Syria’s political return to the international community, after a period of absence, during which the regime contented itself with communicating only with its allies, Russia and Iran.

From late 2021 to date, the Syrian regime has been actively involved in restoring its relations with Arab and non-Arab countries, in an attempt to emerge from the isolation imposed on it, particularly by the United States after the enforcement of the Caesar Act. In addition to the restoration of the Emirati-Syrian relations, the Syrian president made a phone call, in October 2021, with King Abdullah II of Jordan, which was the first call Al-Assad made since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. Further, on 6 November 2021, the Syrian President called Chinese President Xi Jinping, in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Earlier to this, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Syria in July 2021, to be the first visit of a high-ranking Chinese official to Damascus since the outbreak of the conflict.

The Syrian regime hopes that the success of Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE will encourage other international actors, particularly Arab countries, to re-normalize relations with it, paving the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League, which will mean a unanimous Arab recognition of the Syrian regime headed by President Bashar Al-Assad.

Besides the political interest, Syria has an economic interest in restoring relations with the UAE, i.e. attracting Emirati companies and businessmen to Syria’s reconstruction projects. Nevertheless, in view of the continued imposition of Western sanctions on the Syrian regime, the UAE’s economic contribution to Syria will perhaps has a humanitarian dimension as well, pertaining to the provision of foodstuffs to the regime-controlled areas, particularly wheat following Russia’s decision to ban grain exports, let alone the UAE’s continued provision of health support. In this vein, press reports revealed that the UAE has already equipped a hospital in Damascus while work is underway to establish another hospital in Aleppo.

For the UAE, the current move towards rapprochement with the Syrian regime is aimed at achieving several goals. First, there is an Emirati desire to assert the Arab presence and role in the Syrian crisis. Generally, the main actors in the Syrian crisis are Russia, the United States, Iran, and Turkey. Therefore, the UAE’s communications with the Syrian regime are based on the need for an Arab role in the Syrian crisis, as has been evidenced by a tweet of the diplomatic advisor to the President of the Emirates, Anwar Gargash, stating, “Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s visit stems from the UAE’s tendency to perpetuate the Arab role in the Syrian file, and it also comes from an Emirati conviction of the need for political communication, openness and dialogue at the regional level.”

This vision was affirmed by the UAE Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Lana Zaki, who stated that Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE came “within the framework of the UAE general tendency to find diplomatic solutions to crises and our call for the importance of an effective Arab role in discussing ways to solve the crisis in Syria instead of being satisfied with managing it.”

On the other hand, the visit comes amid a strong desire on the part of the Western countries to quickly reach an agreement with Iran, enabling them to overcome the dilemma of the declining Russian supplies of oil and natural gas, which will result in Iran’s restoration of its legitimacy and its visibility as a regional actor, as well as its return to the global financial system after lifting the sanctions imposed on it, which will eventually enable it to expand and extend its entrenched presence in Syria. Consequently, the UAE-Syria rapprochement reflects the Emirati leadership’s desire for an Arab role to balance the Iranian role in the Syrian crisis.

At the same time, the UAE’s strengthening of its political relations with the Syrian regime may serve as an additional incentive to continue dialogue with the Iranian regime, with the Syrian crisis being of mutual interest to both countries. Features of this Emirati-Iranian dialogue were clearer in 2021, with the attendance of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence the inauguration ceremony of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, the meeting of the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum with the Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian, and the visit of an Emirati delegation headed by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, National Security Adviser to Tehran on 6 December 2021, during which they met with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and discussed relations between the two countries and explored avenues for promoting cooperation between them.

At the international level, the Emirati rapprochement with Syria affirms the UAE’s continuation of its approach based on maintaining balanced relations with all parties. Al-Assad’s visit coincides with the intensification of the Russo-Western conflict, which reflected negatively on the Syrian arena, with more extremist stances on the Syrian regime. On 1 March 2022, the US Embassy in Damascus stated, via its Twitter account, that the month of March would be the month of holding the Syrian regime accountable and that impunity in Syria will end, notwithstanding the sharp decrease in the pace of imposed sanctions. 

Following the Syrian president’s visit to the UAE, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed his country’s concern over this blatant attempt to legitimize Al-Assad’s regime. Subsequently, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States issued a joint statement, in which they affirmed standing against efforts aimed at normalizing relations with Al-Assad’s regime. Despite this rejectionist stand, the Emirati leadership adhered to its balancing policy on the Syrian crisis and continued negotiations with all parties in the hope of reaching a settlement to the crisis.

In short, it is not yet clear whether the visit could give rise to Syria’s return to the Arab League, as this is the focus of Syria’s interactions with the Arab countries. According to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, there is no Arab-Arab consensus on Syria’s return to the Arab League. While some Arab countries, such as Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq, have expressed their explicit support for Syria’s return to the Arab League, there is no still no explicit consensus among members of the Arab League on inviting the Syrian president to attend the next Algeria Summit in October 2022. Overall, Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE could serve as a precursor to the return of the bilateral relations with the Syrian regime, towards a gradual return of Syria to the Arab fold.

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