Syria's Assad in the UAE: Unpacking the implications
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s 18 March visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi marks the latest sign of Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold.
With the UAE becoming the first Arab state that Assad has visited since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Abu Dhabi continues to lead efforts from within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to shore up the Damascus regime.
US officialdom quickly expressed outrage. With Washington continuing to impose crippling sanctions on the Syrian regime while urging its Arab allies and partners not to renormalise diplomatic relations with Damascus, the UAE’s embrace of Assad challenges America’s foreign policy agenda.
There is no denying that tensions between Washington and Abu Dhabi are rising and problems in bilateral affairs are not limited to Syria.
"With the UAE becoming the first Arab state that Assad has visited since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Abu Dhabi continues to lead efforts from within the Gulf Cooperation Council to shore up the Damascus regime"
Against the backdrop of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s refusal to speak directly to President Joe Biden, nuclear negotiations with Iran, Abu Dhabi’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions over Yemen, and other sensitive issues, there is currently greater distance between the United States and the UAE compared to the Trump years.
Assad’s visit constitutes another difficult moment in US-UAE relations, especially if arranged during a meeting between the Russian and Emirati foreign ministers in Moscow on 17 March.
Yet beyond strong rhetoric condemning Emirati officials for welcoming Assad to their country, some experts do not expect Washington to take significant action against the UAE.
“The ties that bind the [US and UAE] together are so profound economically, strategically, politically that there will be no serious impact,” Dr Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, told The New Arab.
“I suspect there won’t even be a conversation or even a memo sent from Washington to Abu Dhabi criticizing this move. There’s too much that ties the countries together. I suspect the UAE knows this, which is why they went ahead with the visit,” added Dr Hashemi.
Speaking to TNA, David Des Roches, an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at National Defense University, agrees that Washington is unlikely to impose sanctions on Abu Dhabi.
Yet he explained that the US could decrease its preferential treatment to the Emiratis. “You don’t have to have formal sanctions to slow things down,” said Des Roches. “The UAE is used to being treated exceptionally and just treating them normally, just like any other country, is an impediment.”
Abu Dhabi leans away from the West
The UAE-Syria rapprochement, which began in 2018 (if not 2015), highlights how Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy is increasingly aligned with Russia and China at the expense of US interests.
The UAE’s pro-Assad policies, along with Emirati support for General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, the UAE’s silence on the plight of China’s Uyghur Muslims, and the Gulf country’s “neutral” stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war all underscore this reality.
The Syrian president’s visit came as the UAE has been under increased scrutiny for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s greylisting of the Gulf Arab country on 4 March.
Still, neither incident has slowed Emirati efforts to reintegrate Syria into the regional fold.
“The UAE policy to re-engage with the Assad regime is not going to change because of the conflict in Ukraine. It is here to stay,” said Dr Randa Slim, the Director of Conflict Resolution at the Middle East Institute, in an interview with TNA shortly before Assad arrived in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“This policy is driven by a strategic choice the UAE leadership has made to pursue a de-escalation strategy in the region, including in relations with Tehran.”
Although Western government officials find it morally repugnant for any Arab state to welcome Assad to their country, the UAE sees its approach to Syria as practical and realistic.
In contrast to Qatar, which opposes renormalising diplomatic relations with Damascus out of principle, Abu Dhabi believes it is coming to terms with the inevitable.
Given that the Syrian regime has “won” the civil war, the UAE calculates that reembracing Assad can result in various diplomatic, economic, and geopolitical gains unachievable through isolating Damascus.
In this regard, Abu Dhabi places particular importance on Iranian influence in Syria, which Emirati officials think can be weakened if GCC states bring Assad’s government back into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold through large-scale reconstruction investments in the war-torn country.
Other Arab states, including Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, are seemingly on the same page, with Amman playing a particularly important role in engaging Assad in a step-by-step approach.
"The UAE's defiance of the Biden administration's foreign policy in Syria might carry implications for intra-GCC competition for influence in Washington"
In the GCC, the UAE is the key driver of re-normalisation efforts. As Marco Carnelos, the former Italian ambassador to Iraq, told TNA, the leadership in Abu Dhabi is “always one step ahead of the others”.
Carnelos noted that “[the UAE] was disappointed because, so far, the Abraham Accords have worked [out only] partially from its own point of view (Biden did not sell the F35 fighters and is not quite supportive in Yemen). To the US’s dismay, Abu Dhabi prefers to set its own foreign policy independently. It maintains close cooperation with China, and it has carried out outreach to Syria far before many other Arab players.”
While Western governments have completely forgotten about the Middle East and Syria and have poor capabilities to operate on multiple fronts, Carnelos adds, other governments such as Abu Dhabi can operate freely on Syria and other issues.
“Look, for example, at how it has completely changed, in a few months, its complex dynamic with Turkey. Together with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is also resisting US pressures to increase oil quotas to lower the price of gasoline and ease Joe Biden’s economic troubles,” he said.
The battle for influence in Washington
The UAE’s defiance of the Biden administration’s foreign policy in Syria might carry implications for intra-GCC competition for influence in Washington.
While US officials are upset with Abu Dhabi’s willingness to let bygones be bygones in Syria, Washington appreciates Doha’s position that Assad’s crimes put him beyond the pale.
Qatar can be expected to highlight how its current foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria aligns with the West more than the UAE.
Underscored by Doha and Abu Dhabi’s different reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Qatar’s refusal to defend China’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Doha’s support for Libya’s UN-recognised governments, and other issues including the debate over Syria’s future, the Qataris will be in a stronger position to convince US officialdom that Biden’s decision to designate their country as a major non-NATO ally earlier this year was deserved.
Nonetheless, while Qatar approaches Syria with a principled position, Doha will likely fail to reap the economic, investment, and diplomatic benefits that the UAE expects for itself down the road in Syria.
If or when Qatar abandons its rigid anti-Assad position is unclear, although Doha will probably be the last Arab capital to follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps in terms of rolling out the red carpet for Syria’s president.
"While US officials are upset with Abu Dhabi's willingness to let bygones be bygones in Syria, Washington appreciates Doha's position that Assad's crimes put him beyond the pale"
Looking ahead the trend will remain among Arab governments to embrace the UAE’s (not Qatar’s) policies regarding Damascus. Abu Dhabi is unlikely to be the last capital that Assad visits in the upcoming months and years.
Because the UAE leads in the region, other Arab states, especially those that depend much on Abu Dhabi such as Bahrain, Egypt, and Sudan, may soon host Assad for high-profile visits that shatter the image of his regime as being isolated in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ultimately, the Syrian president’s recent visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and his possible upcoming trips elsewhere in the region speak to a desire by certain Arab governments to consider the 'Arab Spring', which they loathed, as dead and begin a new chapter of supposed 'authoritarian stability'.
In this new chapter, war criminals like Assad will be treated as entirely legitimate leaders regardless of the blood on their hands.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl