Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has flown to the United Arab Emirates on his first visit to an Arab country since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, according to his office.
In a statement published on its social media pages, the office says Assad met with Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. The two talked about expanding bilateral relations between their countries.
The visit sends the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is ready to work again with Syria’s once-widely shunned president. It comes amid the raging war in Ukraine, where Assad’s key ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is continuing a military offensive, now in its fourth week, raining deadly fire on Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv . Syria has backed the Russian invasion and accused the West of provoking it.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after conflict erupted 11 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the war, which has displaced half the Syrian population. Large parts of Syria have been destroyed and would cost tens of billions of dollars to rebuild.
Arab and Western countries generally blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on the 2011 protests that escalated into civil war and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.
With the war stalled and Assad regaining control of most of the country thanks to military aid from allies Russia and Iran, Arab countries have come closer to restoring ties with the Syrian leader in recent years.
The UAE reopened its embassy in Syria in late 2018 in the most significant Arab push towards the Assad government, though ties remained cold. In autumn 2021, the Emirati foreign minister flew to Damascus for a meeting with Assad, the first visit by the country’s top diplomat since 2011. The United States, a close partner of the Emirates, criticized the visit at the time and said it would not support any normalization with Assad Government.
A key motive for the Sunni Muslim countries of the Persian Gulf is to dilute the involvement of their Shia-led enemy, Iran, whose influence was rapidly expanding amid the chaos of the Syrian war.
However, the rapprochement could serve both sides. Syria urgently needs to strengthen ties with oil-rich countries as its economy is choked by crippling Western sanctions and the abandonment of post-war reconstruction. The UAE is also home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf Arab nation and send money to their relatives back home.
The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said the country’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed received Syria’s Assad at his palace in Abu Dhabi.
At the meeting, Sheikh Mohammed expressed his hope that “this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and the entire region.”
According to the report, Assad briefed Sheikh Mohammed on the latest developments in Syria and the two leaders discussed common interests in the Arab world. Assad is said to have left the UAE from Abu Dhabi later on Friday.