Throughout the past 11 years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s international travel has largely been limited to Russia and Iran. Yet, on March 18, Assad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—his first trip to another Arab country since domestic unrest gripped Syria in 2011. Assad’s visit to meet the leaders of Dubai and Abu Dhabi sent a clear message about the Damascus regime’s reentry into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold, as well as the UAE’s central role within this process.
Given Abu Dhabi’s desire to warm up ties with the Assad regime, the red-carpet treatment shown to the Syrian leader should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the warm reception for Assad in Abu Dhabi has further highlighted the growing distance between the UAE’s foreign policy agenda and the interests of Western powers.
One day before Assad arrived in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed travelled to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. There, the two coordinated the Syrian president’s visit. The Russian-Emirati meeting comes at a particularly important time for UAE international relations. The UAE has taken a neutral stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war, signaling its determination to conduct a foreign policy decidedly independent from the wishes of Washington. Indeed, the UAE’s refusal to boost oil production to help the Americans stabilize global energy markets further illustrates this point.
A Split between Abu Dhabi and Washington?
From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, various aspects of American foreign policy clash with Emirati interests. These include the White House’s handling of the F-35 issue, U.S. pressure on the UAE to cool relations with China, Washington’s desire to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and the Biden administration’s reluctance to support Emirati and Saudi war efforts in Yemen.
“The difference in foreign policy priorities is further exacerbated by the failure to maintain critical channels of communication,” wrote Gerald Feierstein, a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “Notably, there has not been a U.S. ambassador in Abu Dhabi since the end of the Trump administration and no nomination for one has been announced… Despite Emirati denials, there is an impression in Washington that the UAE leadership is holding U.S. decision-makers at arms’ length at the same time that it is actively pursuing dialogue with Moscow and Beijing. Clearly, to resolve growing differences of perspective between the two long-time partners, restoring regular channels of communication needs to be prioritized.”
The UAE’s decision to host Assad has greatly upset officials in Washington. Under both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the United States has made clear its opposition to any rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Damascus. Nonetheless, the normalization of relations between the UAE and Syria has not done irreparable damage to the U.S.-UAE partnership. Despite former U.S. Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn claiming that Assad’s recent visit to the UAE is the “first step down the road [for the UAE] to being sanctioned,” there is good reason to question this assumption.
When asked whether the Syrian head of state’s visit to the UAE would have any serious effect on Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington, some experts expressed serious doubt. “I don’t see any significant impact happening whatsoever,” said Dr. Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “I think the UAE now is so powerful and so influential and it feels that its position in Washington, DC has increased significantly because of the Abraham Accords. So, it can challenge the United States in various ways.”
Dr. Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, has a similar view. “I do not expect the Biden administration to do anything about Assad’s visit, especially since U.S. relations with the UAE at the moment are already tense due to Abu Dhabi’s desire to maintain relations with Moscow, and refusal to break with the OPEC+ agreement to raise oil production… The U.S. made clear under the Obama administration that holding Assad accountable was not a top priority. Now, in the context of Ukraine and oil price spikes, the U.S. is even less likely to further strain the U.S.-UAE relationship for the sake of the Syrian people.”
The United States officially maintains the Trump-era Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 that sanctions the Syrian regime for war crimes against Syrian civilians. This legislation has thus far prevented the Emiratis from investing in Syria or trading with the country in any formal capacity. The UAE would like to move past these sanctions, but Washington has not displayed a willingness to end sanctions on the Syrian regime for the crimes it has committed against its own civilians. Abu Dhabi blaming Washington’s sanctions on Syria for making it more difficult to resolve the conflict speaks to the Emirati desire to benefit from investment opportunities in Syria’s reconstruction and redevelopment.
Reluctance from Other GCC States
The UAE will likely push more Arab states to follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps vis-à-vis Assad. Viewing itself as ahead of the diplomatic curve, so to speak, the UAE constantly works to establish itself as a trendsetter in the region. Yet, within the GCC, it is unlikely that member states will soon come to a consensus on how or when to engage with Damascus.
Although the UAE believes that cooperating with the Syrian regime and maintaining formalized relations with his government reflects pragmatic policy, Qatar and Saudi Arabia reject this position—at least for now. Doha, which views its refusal to renormalize relations with Assad as a matter of principle, will probably be the last Arab capital to welcome the Syrian president for a visit or normalize diplomatic ties. Among Qataris—from the elites in government to average citizens—there exists a widespread consensus that Assad’s crimes against humanity go beyond the pale.
Saudi Arabia, too, is not ready to re-formalize ties with Damascus under the current circumstances. Yet, there has been some engagement between the two governments—most notably, the Syrian tourism minister’s visit to Riyadh last year.
Kuwait has yet to reopen relations with Assad’s regime. But as a country that tends to support Arab consensus on regional issues, Kuwait would likely renormalize ties with Damascus only if the Syrian government returns to the Arab League. That process would require a unified position of all members of the organization which does not exist, at least not currently. In February 2019, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that the restoration of Syria’s membership “must be supported by all members, but there remain objections, and some have not disclosed their positions.” However, because it appears inevitable that the Assad regime will survive the Syrian civil war, the question of rapprochement will carry into the foreseeable future.
Within this context, the Arab world’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis Syria will trend toward renormalization. This is a hard truth that more officials in the Gulf are coming to accept. If Arab states desire a level of influence in Syria after the war ends, they will at some point have to deal with the regime in Damascus. How or when all in the GCC states will begin to implement policies that reflect an acceptance of this painful truth remains to be seen.
The UAE is determined to lead and help bring Syria back in from the cold. These efforts will continue to irritate and complicate the U.S.-UAE partnership. Indeed, Abu Dhabi’s role in Syria serves to enable Russia’s foreign policy at a time when Western governments are uniting against Moscow. Abu Dhabi must tread a fine line between advancing its parochial interests and maintaining its partnership with the United States. Successfully managing this tension requires a delicate and difficult balancing act.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.