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How UAE's deep ties with Syria came out in the open

The bilateral relationship has flourished over the past few years, in defiance of the US
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is greeted by Sheikh Mansour, the UAE’s deputy prime minister, in Abu Dhabi on 18 March 2022 (UAE’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs/AFP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weekend trip to the UAE should come as no surprise, even though it appears to have thrown some observers in Washington off balance.

Indeed, it is a culmination of a series of events dating back to 2018, when the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs acknowledged that it had been a major mistake to expel Syria from the Arab League and to cut diplomatic links with Damascus. Then came the UAE’s embassy reopening in Damascus, followed by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed’s trip to the Syrian capital late last year.

'Our embrace never loosened. It just froze, and now the summer has arrived again, and the ice has melted'

- Former Syrian minister

To be clear, the UAE maintained a relatively open relationship with Damascus even during the peak of the war, with regular flights offering a rare refuge for Assad’s inner circle. The Gulf state also became the semi-permanent residence of Assad’s sister after the assassination of her husband, Assef Shawkat, a senior government official.

After surviving the early upheaval of war, the Syria-UAE relationship has publicly flourished over the past few years, in defiance of the US. 

In early March, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, visited Syria’s Expo 2020 stall and tweeted about the importance of Syria for the Arab world and for civilisation, asserting that it must be protected. In his memoirs, Sheikh Mohammed wrote admiringly of the young Assad and his desire to build Syria. He also highlighted the importance of Syria to all Arabs.

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Business and trade links

Dubai helped to drive the relationship between Syria and the UAE, as the rise of the city state relied heavily on contributions from Syria’s middle and upper-middle classes. Syrian businessmen and politicians - such as Sadad Ibrahim al-Husseini, Yusuf Yasin and Maarouf al-Dawalibi, among others - played a key role in the early rise of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE as petro states.

Business and trade links remained active despite the war in Syria and even before the formal reopening of the UAE’s embassy in Damascus, with informal meetings through middlemen in Dubai. At the same time, familial ties between Damascus and parts of the UAE date back to the days of the Trucial States. 

This could explain why it is no surprise that the UAE has publicly called for the removal of US Caesar sanctions, which impose penalties on parties who deal with Syria. The UAE has also delivered medical aid and helped to facilitate Syria’s regional rehabilitation, while Gulf states have been an important factor in the resilience of Syria’s banking sector

According to Syrian economist Amer al-Hussein, despite a "chill" in Syria-UAE relations between 2012 and 2018, the relationship today remains strong. "This is due to [the] movements of many major business and political families to the UAE, and the non-discriminatory policies of the country, which allowed many family businesses to continue operating from Dubai and the other emirates while maintaining ties to their base in Syria," Hussein told me in a recent conversation.

Today, "with the conflict rescinding, the UAE can provide a channel for Syria’s economy into regional and global trade”, while also helping to rebuild the country, he added.

Out of the shadows

Meanwhile, with the recent trip by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the UAE, it is becoming increasingly clear that Turkey has dropped its confrontational stance to former opponents, after the Syrian president successfully used the Kurdish issue to partner up with Abu Dhabi’s security establishment and put pressure on Ankara. Indeed, Turkey is reportedly pulling several hundred troops out of Syria, and instead sending them to Iraq.

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While Ankara has yet to indicate any formal rapprochement with Damascus, Turkey would certainly trust the UAE more than Russia, given events in Ukraine.

When it comes to Syria and Iran, despite a strong security relationship, Syria does not toe the Iranian line in Lebanon and Iraq, two key regional battlegrounds where both the Saudis and the Emiratis need Damascus. 

Ultimately, the UAE has a strong business and familial base in Syria that never disappeared, and has only recently reemerged from the shadows.

Amid uncertainty over Ukraine, and the alleged refusal of Gulf leaders to take calls from US President Joe Biden, it is important to note that the UAE, first and foremost, thrives as a business hub - and its two increasingly important trade partners, China and India, have both made investments in Syria, despite the Caesar Act.

The UAE is slowly bringing its covert relationship with Syria into the open. As a former Syrian minister who now lives in Dubai, and has been part of the back channel between the two countries, told me recently: "Our embrace never loosened. It just froze, and now the summer has arrived again, and the ice has melted."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kamal Alam specialises in contemporary military history of the Middle East. He was a Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute from 2015 to 2019. Currently, he is a Fellow at The Institute for Statecraft and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and he lectures at several military staff colleges across the Middle East.
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