Assad in UAE as second post-quake Gulf visit signals growing Arab outreach
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met on Sunday with Emirati leaders in Abu Dhabi, his second visit to the Gulf since his country’s earthquake last month sparked renewed efforts to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold.
The trip – Assad’s second to the United Arab Emirates in as many years – follows a visit to Oman last month, his only official engagement in Arab countries since the start of the Syrian war in 2011 .
UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan greeted Assad and his wife Asma in the capital, the official WAM news agency said, ahead of high-level meetings at the Presidential Palace.
“We held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries,” the Emirati president said in a statement.
“Our discussions also explored ways to improve cooperation to accelerate stability and progress in Syria and the region,” Sheikh Mohamed said.
Abu Dhabi, which normalized relations with the ousted Assad government in 2018, is leading aid efforts after the Feb. 6 earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, killing thousands.
Analysts say the diplomatic momentum generated after the earthquake could boost Damascus’ relations with Middle Eastern countries that have so far resisted normalization after more than a decade of war.
“The UAE’s approach and efforts towards Syria are part of a deeper vision and broader approach aimed at strengthening Arab and regional stability,” said senior Emirati presidential adviser Anwar Gargash.
“The position of the UAE is clear regarding the need for Syria to return to” its place in the Arab world and regain legitimacy in the region, Gargash said on Twitter.
“His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed confirmed this during his meeting today” with Assad, the adviser said.
During Sunday’s meeting, Assad praised the UAE’s role in strengthening relations between Arab countries, according to a statement from the Syrian presidency.
Syria’s president criticized the policy of severing ties between Arab states as a “wrong principle in politics”, arguing that relations should be “favourable,” the statement said.
– ‘Time to settle’ –
The UAE has pledged more than $100 million in aid to quake-hit Syria, the largest amount by any single nation.
It had also dispatched search and rescue teams, provided thousands of tons of emergency relief items and treated Syrian earthquake victims in Emirati hospitals.
And the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was the first senior Arab official to visit Syria since the quake last month.
Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Abu Dhabi “is convinced, along with many Arab states, that the time has come to reach a compromise with Assad … and to see Syria return to the Arab League and the Arabic folder”.
Assad has been politically isolated in the region since the start of the Syrian war, fueled by the government’s suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, and expelled from the Cairo-based Arab League.
During the war, Assad rarely traveled abroad, with the exception of trips to allies Iran and Russia — where he visited again this week and met with President Vladimir Putin.
“The UAE is at the forefront of efforts to meet the enemies of the past and transform them into friends of tomorrow,” Abdulla told AFP.
Sunday’s UAE visit is Assad’s first official trip abroad with his wife Asma in more than a decade.
It also comes on the heels of a Chinese-brokered announcement earlier this month to end a seven-year diplomatic rift between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has backed the opposing sides in the Syrian war.
On Thursday, Iran’s chief security officer Ali Shamkhani met with the Emirati president in Abu Dhabi and had talks with the UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who attended on Sunday the welcome ceremony for Assad.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, who also sent earthquake aid to Syria, said last month that a consensus was building in the Arab world that a new approach to Damascus would be needed to address humanitarian crises with -includes the tremor.