Order of engagement: Assad’s visit to Abu Dhabi
The UAE’s embrace of Assad is central to the construction of a new regional order that preserves Emirati influence
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s 18 March visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he was received by the country’s two most senior leaders, is a symbol of the new Middle Eastern order. More than a decade after the Arab uprisings and against the background of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the trip reflects a new regional assertiveness. Led by the UAE, these regional players now directly challenge their long-standing partners in the West, while attempting to consolidate authoritarian stability across the region.
The UAE’s increasing self-confidence in its foreign policy is tied to its perception that the United States is retrenching from the region and thoroughly distracted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In what Emirati leaders see as the first test of the new multipolar order, they are engaged in extreme hedging – refusing to actively support Europe and the US in their confrontation with Russia, and pursuing their narrow self-interest without concern for whether this clashes with that of the West. Western states have been unwilling to take a tougher approach to Yemen’s Houthis, even after the group launched missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in January and February 2022. This has contributed to the UAE’s sense that the West is no longer a reliable partner – and that, therefore, it is free to chart its own path.
The precise timing of the visit – coinciding with both the war in Ukraine and the eleventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising –highlights the depth of the Emiratis’ disregard for Western concerns.
To be sure, Assad’s trip is consistent with Emirati policy on Syria of 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 UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, spoke to Assad in March 2020, offering Damascus assistance in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic. In October 2021, Syrian Economy and Trade Minister Mohammed Samer Al Khalil met with his Emirati counterpart, Abdulla bin Touq al-Marri, at Dubai Expo 2020, while Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Assad in Damascus a month later. The UAE has also been quietly working 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 requests to not go all the way.
Assad’s visit – his first to an Arab state since the Syrian uprising began – takes this re-engagement to a new level. Having subjected Syrians to brutal violence for more than a decade, Damascus has remained unwilling to make any compromises. In hosting Assad without the need for political or humanitarian concessions on his part – even of a purely symbolic nature – Abu Dhabi is dismissing the concerns of US and European partners who strongly oppose unconditional engagement.
This embrace of Assad is central to the construction of a new regional order aimed at preserving the UAE’s stability and influence. 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 that it can play a role in shaping Syria’s trajectory. From an Emirati perspective, the rehabilitation of Assad could also fit into a grand bargain on regional security with Iran – which is Assad’s key backer and with which Abu Dhabi has also re-engaged in the past two years. In this way, the UAE could mitigate the threat of further attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis.
But the Emiratis also have other goals in Syria. The country fits into their wider 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 is strategically positioned in this arena. In early 2019, Dubai-based logistics giant DP World established a 2,500km transport corridor running from Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port to the Naseeb-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria. The UAE may now hope to gain a first-mover advantage by mending its relationship with Syria before its rivals do – to maximise its geo-economic gains.
The UAE has shown itself willing to absorb Western opprobrium for the move in pursuit of these goals. But, while the US government has criticised Assad’s visit, the wider response has been muted – reflecting the current focus on Ukraine and the need for Emirati support in the energy market. Few Western governments have openly come out against the move, even if many remain vehemently opposed to re-engagement with Assad.
Still, the Emiratis may be overplaying their hand here if they underestimate the long-term impact of the perceived betrayal on US lawmakers in particular – and on their partners in Paris, too. While they are betting that broader strategic imperatives linked to Russia and energy security will protect them, the political mood in the West is shifting against Arab Gulf states that are refusing to support the West despite long benefiting from its security guarantees. Some members of the US Congress are talking about the prospect of Syria-related sanctions on regional states that re-engage with Assad – under the remit of the 2019 Caesar Act – if the 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 normalisation began long ago. The president’s reception in Abu Dhabi is symbolically important and emphasises how far the process has gone, but this political reality is unlikely to quickly result in material support substantive enough to help him rebuild Syria. The country’s ongoing instability and endemic corruption, and the threat of US sanctions, continue to act as powerful deterrents to sustained investment and reconstruction efforts. Ultimately, there is little prospect of substantial financial flows into Syria any time soon.
Nonetheless, 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 a 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 UAE to use this to at least secure lower-level concessions that could help ordinary Syrians still struggling to survive in desperate and unstable conditions. This highlights the growing gap between regional actors and Western governments on the issue – as on an increasing number of others.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.