UAE to strengthen ties with Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has met the United Arab Emirates’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus, the Syrian presidency said.
Bin Zayed is the first Emirati official to visit Damascus since the 2011 uprising that escalated into a brutal, multifaceted war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced millions from their homes, and destroyed Syria’s infrastructure.
Previously, the UAE was one of several regional powers that backed opposition fighters in Syria’s war. With the Syrian government recapturing much of the country, Arab countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, have made overtures towards al-Assad’s government.
The two discussed “exploring new horizons” to bolster bilateral ties and commercial partnerships at Tuesday’s meeting, according to a Syrian presidency statement. Bin Zayed headed a senior delegation of Emirati officials, it added.
“Sheikh Abdullah stressed the UAE’s support for efforts for stability in Syria … expressing his confidence that Syria, under the leadership of President Al-Assad, and the efforts of its people are able to overcome the challenges caused by the war,” the statement read. Al-Assad praised the UAE for its “correct and objective positions” towards Syria.
Last month, the Emirati economy ministry said it had agreed with its Syrian counterpart to enhance trade and economic cooperation after the economy ministers of both countries met on the sidelines at Dubai Expo 2020.
Ties between the two countries have slowly rekindled since the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in late 2018. In March 2019, bin Zayed said the UAE intended “to ensure that Syria returns to the Arab region”. Abu Dhabi has also called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League, a sign of improving ties between Assad and a U.S.-allied Arab state that once supported rebels trying to overthrow him.
Pushing Turkey and Iran out of Syria?
Analysts have taken the latest visit as a sign of increased UAE interest in Syria, especially in order to reduce the extent of Turkey’s hard power in Syria, as well as to weaken Iran’s strong influence on the Assad regime. Although the former is likely to be true, the latter, although true to a certain extent, is also juxtaposed with the fact that the UAE has in recent months been repairing and strengthening economic ties, and initiating geopolitical dialogue with Iran.
In a further sign of a thaw in relations between Iran and the UAE, the Gulf state has become the number one exporter of goods to the Islamic Republic, according to the latest data released by the Iranian Customs Authority.
The authority’s spokesman, Ruhollah Latifi, released figures on Sunday showing that goods exported from the UAE to Iran were valued at $7 billion over the past six months. This is nearly three times more than the second placed country, Turkey, with trade valued at $2.4bn. This is followed by Russia with $639 million, Iraq with $499m and Oman with $270m. Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were also mentioned by Latifi.
The UAE also ranks high as a major importer of goods from Iran. Despite years of apparent hostility, the Gulf state has become a key market for Tehran. Iraq tops the list of importers from Iran, with goods valued at nearly $4bn. Turkey is again ranked second, with $2.3bn, and the UAE is in third place with $2.2bn.
On 20 September, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi expressed his hope for the development of bilateral relations between his country and the UAE in various fields, especially the economy.
Another sign of independent foreign policy
This was a far cry from the hostility seen during the four years of the Trump administration in Washington. The former US President spearheaded a campaign to isolate Iran, supported by the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the UAE’s shift towards Assad shows that its strengthening ties with Iran are independent of the US’s own attempts at reconciliation.
Following his surprise four-hour trip to Syria’s capital of Damascus on Tuesday, the Emirati foreign minister headed to Jordan, which has also reopened channels with Syria after a decade-long rupture.
In Amman, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the two discussed “efforts to reach political solutions to the crisis in the region,” a royal court statement said.
The United States on Tuesday criticized the top diplomat of ally the United Arab Emirates for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, denouncing efforts to rehabilitate a “brutal dictator.”
“We are concerned by reports of this meeting and the signal that it sends,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“This administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator,” Price said, not referring to him as president.
Price declined to say if the US had conveyed its concerns to the Emirates but said Washington was “not surprised,” indicating that there was discussion beforehand.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is focused on humanitarian relief for Syria.
But Price said there was no question of legitimizing Assad.