Last Friday, March 18, marked Syrian President Assad’s visit to the UAE, his first visit to an Arab country in over 11 years. Assad met with Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. The meeting showcases a potential transition to re-engagement between Assad’s regime and the Arab world after years of condemnation of Assad’s ruling catapulting the Syrian civil war. The talk revolved around expanding cooperation between the two countries and greater economic and commercial collaboration.
Reflecting on the visit at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al- Maktoum’s residence in Al-Marmoon in Dubai, the Syrian Arab News Agency emphasized the meeting’s framework “of fraternity relations, expressing [the Sheikh’s] sincere wishes for Syria and its people that security and safety would prevail all over the country. Talks during the meeting dealt with the overall relations between the two countries and prospects of expanding the scope of bilateral cooperation, particularly at the economic, investment and commercial levels, in a way that promotes them up to the aspirations of the two brotherly peoples.”
The meeting covered various thematic topics, specifically Syrian peace and stability within the country. Notably, it was also attended by Dr. Faisal Mekdad, the Syrian minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, and a number of external officials. According to Emirates News Agency (WAM), “the meeting dealt with the overall relations between the two countries and the prospects of expanding cooperation in a way that…achieves their comprehensive development goals, and enhances the chances of peace and stability in Syria and the region in general. The two sides also reviewed the current situation in Syria, as well as various developments on the Arab and international scene, and all topics of common interest. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid affirmed the UAE's keenness to discover new paths of constructive cooperation with Syria, and to monitor opportunities to advance this cooperation for the common interests of the two brotherly peoples.”
The UAE has been one of the few Arab countries within recent years that have been more open to engagement with Assad’s regime compared to neighboring states. According to Al Jazeera, “the UAE reopened its embassy in Syria in late 2018 in the most significant Arab overture toward the Assad government, though relations remained cold. Last fall, the Emirati foreign minister flew to Damascus for a meeting with Assad, the first visit by the country’s top diplomat since 2011…a key motive for some of the Arab countries of the Gulf, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, is to blunt the involvement of their foe, Iran, which saw its influence expand rapidly in the chaos of Syria’s war.”
One of the few regional countries apart from the UAE that has engaged with Assad has been Jordan. The Middle East Eye cites that “Jordan's king held a much-publicized phone call with Assad in October, and has lobbied for the lifting of sanctions in Washington so his fragile economy can resume trade with its neighbour.”
However, discussed further in Middle East Eye, the UAE has maintained strongest rapprochement with Syria in comparison with the rest of the Arab countries: “As a regional powerhouse, the UAE has been at the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate the government in Damascus. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed traveled to Syria in November to meet with Assad, and earlier this summer the two countries resumed direct flights. Syria also had a prominent booth at the 2020 Dubai Expo.”
The timing of this historic meeting can be tied to the current affairs regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Writing for the Times of Israel, Albert Aji and Zenia Karam state that “the visit sends the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with Syria’s once widely shunned president. It comes against the backdrop of the raging war in Ukraine where Assad’s main ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is pressing on with a military offensive, now in its fourth week, raining lethal fire on Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv…Syria badly needs to boost relations with oil-rich countries as its economy is being strangled by crippling Western sanctions and as it faces the task of post-war reconstruction. The UAE is also home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf Arab nation and send money to their relatives at home.”