Abu Dhabi has been fostering ties with Damascus through legal means for a long time. The UAE may be crucial to post-conflict reconstruction as the US softens its stance toward Assad.
Just one day after UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed made his second trip to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, US Senator Jim Risch issued a tweet warning the United Arab Emirates against further interaction with the Assad regime in Syria.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (Caesar Sanctions), one of the most potent tools at Washington’s disposal to keep allies and partners in line when it comes to normalizing relations with Damascus, should be known to Risch, a senator who serves on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The United States still has considerable influence over its Arab allies and is not just a spectator in Syria – if it chooses to use that influence. Syria is a resource for Abu Dhabi as it builds its network. It tries to strengthen its position as a regional middle power by using Damascus’ relations as a negotiating chip.
While it would be inaccurate to state that there is no affection between the two authoritarian counterrevolutionary players, it is crucial to emphasize that Assad is merely a tool the Emiratis are using to establish themselves as the top Arab broker in post-revolutionary Syria.
The network-centric statecraft of the Persian Gulf states depends on the creation and maturation of intricate and covert networks across all spheres that are all connected, either directly or indirectly, to the system in Abu Dhabi that makes strategic decisions. These networks make the UAE a significant hub of regional influence.
The fact that the Assad government was starting to gain international support presented an intriguing opportunity for the Persian Gulf monarchy. While other Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been at the forefront of arming rebels fighting Damascus, Assad’s counterrevolution is evidence of the tenacity of his government, which, with support from Russia and Iran, has been able to hold on to power.
Abu Dhabi took advantage of the strategic void to lend Damascus a helping hand at a time when its rival in the region, Iran, appeared to be making progress in the Arab Levant. More than that, the emirate has discovered an ideological ally in Assad who, like the president of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has been on a counterrevolutionary crusade against Islamism.
Therefore, it was not surprising when the UAE made the decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus in 2018. Emirati networks were revived very quickly, especially in the trade and financial sectors. Key Damascus proxies had long-standing relationships with the UAE as a safe haven for their illicit funds; many of them attended the UAE-Syria Investment Forum, which Abu Dhabi hosted in January 2019.
The Trump administration’s implementation of the Caesar Sanctions in June 2020, which put the Emirates on notice, put an end to all this overt strategic engagement between Abu Dhabi and Damascus.