Understanding Changes in UAE-Syria Relations
Syria’s government has mostly been triumphant in its gruesome civil war. In addition to its victories on the battlefield, Damascus has also begun to achieve success in global diplomacy. Regionally, more Arab states are re-engaging Damascus. At this juncture, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is finding a special supporter in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which had cut off official ties with Damascus early on in the conflict but restored them a year ago. Earlier this month, Abdul-Hakim Naimi, the UAE’s charge d’affaires to Syria, stated, “I hope that safety, security and stability in the Syrian Arab Republic will prevail under the shadow of the wise leadership of Dr. Bashar al-Assad.” Naimi also hailed the UAE and Syria’s “durable, special, and powerful” relationship.
When looking at what Emirati interests have driven Abu Dhabi to re-embrace Assad’s government so openly, there are numerous factors in play. To begin, it is important to realize that the UAE—at least compared to Saudi Arabia and Qatar—was never so adamant about ousting Syria’s Ba’athist regime. As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-state most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood as a regional force, officials in Abu Dhabi—for all their disagreements with Assad’s government on a host of portfolios (Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, etc.)—understood that the Syrian regime’s collapse would have likely benefited the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Turkish media reports, the UAE even coordinated with Damascus to help the Syrian Arab Army kill certain leaders of anti-Assad groups in the civil war during the 2012-2014 period, such as Zahran Alloush, Hassan Aboud, Khalid Al-Suri, and Abdel Qadwr Saleh. Additionally, throughout the Syrian civil war it’s been no secret that the Emiratis have kept their doors open to wealthy Syrian businessmen tied to the regime and members of the Assad family.
From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the UAE’s leadership hated the revolutionary activism and uprisings that shook the region. Today, Abu Dhabi views Assad’s regime as a survivor. Having witnessed UAE-allied governments in Tunis and Cairo fall in 2011 during a wave of popular uprisings that resulted in local Islamist parties gaining power, Emirati officials had little interest in seeing a Sunni Islamist order taking control of Damascus. Currently, in the post-Arab Spring period, the UAE promotes an anti-Muslim Brotherhood model of “authoritarian stability” in the Middle East, underscored its support for “secular” strongmen in Cairo and eastern Libya.
Within this context, it is not difficult to see how the Emirati leadership has been rather willing to re-accept the legitimacy of Assad’s regime under this banner of countering “terrorism” and “extremism.” Indeed, the Damascus regime’s vitriol for the Muslim Brotherhood places Syria’s government and the UAE in the same boat, at least concerning political Islam.
The “Neo-Ottoman” Factor
Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis also helps explain Abu Dhabi’s pro-Assad position. The Emirati perspective is that Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa constitutes a grave threat not only to the UAE’s interests, but to those of the Arab region at large. This thinking has contributed to an Emirati belief that supporting the Damascus regime is a necessary step for Arab states to take in order to counter this supposed “neo-Ottoman” threat. To be sure, Syria is not the only theater where the Emiratis and Turks find themselves in a strategic clash. From the Libyan civil war to the Qatar crisis and Sudan’s transition to civilian rule, the UAE and Turkey are pitted against each other and competing to gain greater influence at the other’s expense.
Regarding Syria’s future, Abu Dhabi hopes to see the Assad government reintegrate into the Arab world so that Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the UAE can establish a solid front against Ankara’s ambitious foreign policy. The Emirati view is that Turkey has capitalized on major divisions within the Arab region for its own benefit, and with Abu Dhabi working to bring Syria back from the cold nearly nine years after it was suspended from the Arab League, the UAE can play a pivotal role in minimizing the Arab region’s internal divisions to the detriment of Turkey’s agenda.
Reconstruction and financial interests also weigh into the Emirati leadership’s thinking. Given the potential for outsiders to profit significantly from Syrian reconstruction, the UAE—along with China and others—is eyeing such opportunities. Abu Dhabi is attempting to use its investment power in the domain of reconstruction to entice Syria away from Turkey and Iran.
In fact, a few months before the UAE re-opened its diplomatic mission in Damascus a year ago, Emirati officials paid visits to Syria to discuss their country’s role as an investor in post-war reconstruction. Of course, Russia wants wealthy Arab Gulf states to reach into their deep pockets to finance the reconstruction, as the Russians lack the resources to do this on their own, which brings us to the significance of the strengthening Abu Dhabi-Moscow partnership.
The recent changes in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Syria must be understood within a wider geopolitical context whereby more Arab states, including the UAE, are catering to Russian interests to further their own. This trend is not new. After Russia intensified its direct military intervention in Syria in 2015, the UAE (unlike Saudi Arabia) did not officially oppose Moscow’s moves, and early on the Emirati leadership made it clear that Abu Dhabi could accept a solution to the Syrian crisis that left Assad in power.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of events in the region have prompted Abu Dhabi to become more wary of relying on the United States so heavily as a security guarantor. Notably, the Trump administration’s lack of a strong response to the September 2019 Aramco attacks and the U.S. president’s decision to “abandon” the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria the following month unsettled numerous Arab states in the region that rely on the U.S. for their defense. These dynamics are prompting more countries such as the UAE (and even Saudi Arabia) to turn closer to Moscow with the hope of diversifying their alliances and partnerships at a time in which Washington is seen as increasingly unreliable from a national security standpoint.
Thus, as Russia’s power (both perceived and real) increases in the region, more of Washington’s historic Arab allies find themselves between the U.S. and Russia geopolitically. To be sure, with the U.S. imposing new sanctions on Damascus, the UAE is being pressured from the West to slow down its efforts to help Damascus reintegrate into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. Nonetheless, while looking ahead, the fading influence of the U.S. in the Middle East is creating a void that Russia will continue working to fill. The odds are good that Moscow will use its growing clout to pressure more Arab states to re-engage Syria and re-open diplomatic missions in Damascus. There is every reason to bet that the UAE, given Abu Dhabi’s interests, will continue its lead role among Arab states in terms of facilitating this process to boost Assad’s standing in the greater Middle East.