Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held a rare phone call on October 20 to discuss increasing mutual relations and cooperation. According to Assad’s office, the two leaders also deliberated on some regional and international affairs.
On November 9, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed made a surprise visit to Damascus where he met President Assad, defying the past Arab consensus to not collaborate with the Syrian President. The Emirati delegation and Syrian officials reportedly pondered “new horizons for this cooperation, especially in vital sectors in order to strengthen investment partnerships in these sectors.”
The UAE and Syria’s relationship has blossomed since the beginning of 2020, as Abu Dhabi is reorienting its foreign policy while the crash-strapped Assad regime seeks greater economic support to rebuild its dynasty. On October 10 this year, the UAE and Syria also sought to enhance economic cooperation and explore new areas of bilateral collaboration. The UAE’s economy ministry revealed that non-oil trade between the two countries reached $272 million (USD) in the first half of 2021.
The UAE is openly defying the United States and its Trump-era Caesar Act, which entails sanctions on governments doing business with Damascus while Assad is president.
Such developments also imply that the UAE is openly defying the United States and its Trump-era Caesar Act, which entails sanctions on governments doing business with Damascus while Assad is president. Significantly, the latest upgrade in Emirati and Syrian ties came days after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated Washington’s position that it opposes efforts to normalize relations with Assad. This echoed past warnings of sanctions from Washington, which were directly aimed at Abu Dhabi.
Once again, following the November 9 meeting, US State Department spokesman Ned Price immediately denounced the Emirati Foreign Minister’s meeting with Assad and called the latter a “brutal dictator.” However, along with its waning authority in the Middle East, Washington’s past tolerance of Abu Dhabi’s courting of Assad suggests it will struggle to prevent the UAE’s efforts to normalize Assad and ensure his regime’s survival.
Under Donald Trump and Barack Obama’s administrations, the UAE quietly wooed Assad’s regime. Since then, under Biden’s auspices, it has expanded its engagement with Damascus to secure its grip over Syria. The UAE prefers supporting authoritarian figures, especially those who target political Islam and use Islamism as a pretext to crack down on civil society. Assad, therefore, is a perfect candidate for Abu Dhabi to remake the Middle East and North Africa in its own autocratic image.
As a fledgling regional power during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the UAE quietly toed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) line of supporting the Syrian opposition while opposing Assad’s crackdowns on protestors. As it became more confident, Abu Dhabi’s position gradually shifted. It backed more secular fighters, trying to steer clear of Islamists, as opposed to its close ally Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more controversially, the UAE also welcomed the Russian air force’s intervention in September 2015, which later secured Assad’s control over the country.
In a sign of the Arab world’s receptiveness towards the Syrian regime, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, following Assad’s forces’ re-capturing of the territory it had lost during the war. Bahrain also re-opened its own embassy, indicating it would follow suit with Abu Dhabi on its Syria policy, as it did with its normalization with Israel in September 2020.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE increased its cooperation with Syria, largely under the pretext of humanitarian support. The country is also working towards de-escalation with Iran, one of Assad’s main supporters, demonstrating its pragmatism. Despite the US Caesar Act, the UAE has steadily pursued under-the-table support for the Assad regime. This has included training Syrian intelligence officers in information and communications systems as well as computer security and networks throughout 2020. Emirati companies have also supplied fuel to the Syrian military.
Declining US Influence
To be sure, the UAE has often defied the United States’ role in various regional affairs, and it has also drifted closer towards China and Russia. While still seeing the US as an important ally and wanting to maintain lobbying sway, a dependency on Washington’s power restricts the UAE’s unlimited ambitions of global economic hegemony and dominance.
From a geopolitical perspective, Abu Dhabi has seen the US as an unreliable ally.
From a geopolitical perspective, Abu Dhabi has seen the US as an unreliable ally, especially following its drawdown from the Middle East and Afghanistan and its failures to reduce tensions with Iran. Meanwhile, the US is still planning a withdrawal from Iraq by December 31, raising the prospects of a larger pullback from the Middle East.
Other regional governments are evidently tiring of Washington’s measures on Syria. On October 3, Jordanian King Abdullah II received his first phone call from Assad since the conflict started. This came after Jordanian officials urged the US to enable trade between the two countries and Amman reopened its main border crossing with Syria.
Among all Arab nations, the UAE has been the biggest cheerleader for rehabilitating Assad. In March 2021, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan slammed the Caesar Act and said it further complicates the situation over Syria and prevents its return to the Arab League.
The US will likely avoid rebuilding relations with the Assad regime, at least for the time being. However, the UAE’s growing rapprochement indicates that its Arab allies will continue to seek rebuilding relations with Damascus, and the US will be helpless to prevent it.
Aside from Jordan’s move, the UAE’s leadership in advancing normalization with Syria is setting a precedent for other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia and Egypt may continue down the path of restoring links with Assad, or at least begin to tolerate him. Oman, which has retained high-level communications with Damascus per its neutral-mediator role in the Middle East, would not see substantial changes. And as Saudi Arabia is increasingly more receptive to Iran, other Arab countries would put up with Tehran’s influence in Syria.
Yet not all Arab countries share Abu Dhabi’s receptiveness towards Assad. Just as Qatar has firmly rejected open normalization with Israel prior to any two-state solution with the Palestinians following the Abraham Accords, it will likely continue shunning normalization with Assad, given its support for opposition forces during Syria’s civil war.
Indeed, the UAE will have to contend with other powers with opposing views over Syria. The UAE partly backed Assad to counter its rival Turkey when Ankara supported the Syrian opposition in Idlib and even intervened militarily to counter Assad’s government in March 2020, which preceded MbZ’s communication with Assad.
In September, Turkey said it would extend its military presence in the contested Idlib enclave, which led it to forge a de-escalation zone with Russia following the conflict in February 2020. The Turkish parliament also extended military operations in Syria and Iraq for two years, on October 26. Thus, any future interventions in Syria, which could clash with Abu Dhabi’s interests, should not be ruled out.
The rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Ankara in August suggests that a severe rivalry will probably not occur over Syria.
Although the rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Ankara in August suggests that a severe rivalry will probably not occur over Syria, there could be some subtle jostling and maneuvering between the two countries. Nonetheless, such differences will mostly be manageable, as the two countries are currently prioritizing bilateral investments.
There is also the question of who, if anyone, will support Syria’s post-war reconstruction. For the Assad regime, this is a priority, given that Syria’s economy is in dangerous waters and would need to be salvaged to secure his control over the country.
Despite its support for Assad, the UAE may not be engaging in serious reconstruction until the US fully recognizes the Syrian regime. Russia lacks the funds to rebuild the war ravaged country and mostly seeks to use the Assad government as a neo-Soviet satellite state. Meanwhile, China has the money but does not currently have the interest – after all, its care for Syria mostly extends to paltry aid parcels.
Thus, Assad’s allies are merely interested in securing his regime’s survival and control, and rebuilding Syria is not a priority. While more countries may be allowed to do business with the Assad government, this does nothing to improve the woes of Syrians who have endured over a decade of conflict and could even leave Assad feeling short-changed.