Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates on March 18, where he was received by the country’s two most senior leaders, is a symbol of the new order in the Middle East. More than a decade after the Arab uprisings and against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the trip reflects a new regional assertiveness. Led by the UAE, these regional players are now directly challenging their longtime partners in the West, while attempting to consolidate authoritarian stability across the region.
The growing confidence of the United Arab Emirates in its foreign policy is linked to its perception that the United States is withdrawing from the region and completely distracted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In what the Emirati leaders see as the first test of the new multipolar order, they are engaged in extreme cover – refusing to actively support Europe and the United States in their confrontation with Russia, and pursuing their narrow self-interest without worrying about whether it conflicts with that of the West. Western states have been unwilling to take a tougher approach towards Yemen’s Houthis, even after the group launched missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in January and February 2022. This has contributed to sentiment in the Arab Emirates united that the West is no longer a reliable partner – and that, therefore, it is free to chart its own course.
The precise timing of the visit – which coincides with both the war in Ukraine and the eleventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising – highlights the depth of Emirati disregard for Western concerns.
Certainly, Assad’s trip is in line with Emirati policy on Syria in recent years. The UAE has embraced the idea of rehabilitating the Assad regime since at least 2018, when it reopened its embassy in Damascus. The de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, spoke with Assad in March 2020, offering Damascus assistance in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic. In October 2021, the Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade, Mohammed Samer Al Khalil, met his Emirati counterpart, Abdulla bin Touq al-Marri, at Expo 2020 Dubai, while the Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met Assad in Damascus a month later. The UAE has also worked quietly with regional partners such as Egypt to readmit Syria to the Arab League.
But, until recently, Abu Dhabi had only taken smaller steps – ultimately complying with US demands not to go all the way.
Assad’s visit – his first to an Arab state since the start of the Syrian uprising – takes that re-engagement to a new level. After subjecting the Syrians to brutal violence for more than a decade, Damascus has still been unwilling to compromise. By welcoming Assad without the need for political or humanitarian concessions on his part – even of a purely symbolic nature – Abu Dhabi dismisses the concerns of American and European partners who strongly oppose unconditional engagement.
This embrace of Assad is at the heart of building a new regional order aimed at preserving the stability and influence of the United Arab Emirates. Syria remains a bear pit for powers such as Turkey, Iran and Russia. And the UAE wants to be in the mix, competing with regional rivals to ensure it can play a part in shaping Syria’s trajectory. From an Emirati perspective, Assad’s rehabilitation could also be part of a larger regional security deal with Iran – which is Assad’s main backer and with which Abu Dhabi has also re-engaged in the over the past two years. In this way, the UAE could mitigate the threat of further attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis.
But the Emiratis also have other objectives in Syria. The country fits into their broader neo-mercantilist strategy for trade and energy connectivity. This strategy could put the UAE at the heart of trade and energy flows between Asia, Africa and Europe, especially if the country can directly control its connections to the Eastern Mediterranean. Syria occupies a strategic position in this area. In early 2019, Dubai-based logistics giant DP World established a 2,500 km transport corridor from Dubai’s Jebel Ali port to the Naseeb-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria. The UAE can now hope to secure a first-mover advantage by repairing relations with Syria before its rivals do – to maximize its geo-economic gains.
The UAE has shown itself willing to absorb Western opprobrium for the pursuit of these goals. But, while the US government has criticized Assad’s visit, the broader response has been muted – reflecting the current focus on Ukraine and the need for Emirati support in the energy market. Few Western governments have spoken openly against the move, though many remain staunchly opposed to re-engagement with Assad.
Yet the Emiratis may be exaggerating here if they are underestimating the long-term impact of the perceived betrayal on US lawmakers in particular – and on their partners in Paris as well. As they gamble that broader strategic imperatives related to Russia and energy security will protect them, the political mood in the West is shifting against Gulf Arab states refusing to back the West as they benefit for a long time of its security guarantees. Some members of the US Congress are raising the prospect of Syria-related sanctions against regional states that tie up with Assad – under the Caesar Act of 2019 – if Republicans regain control of Congress later this year.
For Syria itself, the visit does not change much. Assad’s position is secure. And the process of regional normalization started a long time ago. The President’s reception in Abu Dhabi is symbolically important and underscores how far the process has come, but this political reality should not quickly result in material support substantial enough to help him rebuild Syria. The country’s continued instability and endemic corruption, along with the threat of US sanctions, continue to act as powerful obstacles to sustained investment and reconstruction efforts. Ultimately, there is little prospect of substantial financial flows to Syria in the near future.
Nevertheless, the visit is another nail in the coffin of the West’s policy on Syria. Western governments have long struggled to align their approach to the country with the reality on the ground. And, for many years, it has been clear that there is no political transition on the cards. But, while some degree of re-engagement with the Assad regime can be understood in the context of its survival, the West has now failed to push regional allies such as the United Arab Emirates to use it. to at least secure lower-level concessions that could help ordinary Syrians who are still struggling to survive in desperate and unstable conditions. This highlights the growing rift between regional actors and Western governments on the issue – as on a growing number of others.
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