Seizing opportunities in Syria, UAE leads Arab efforts to do business with Assad

The United Arab Emirates is at the forefront of efforts in the Arab world to bring Syria out of the cold.

Government officials and business executives from the UAE and Syria say the oil-rich country is trying to normalize closer ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a decade after He was ostracized for his brutal repression of opponents and thrust the country into civil war.

Most of Syria’s Arab neighbors have joined the West in cutting ties with Damascus. Mr. Assad is still shunned by most of the world due to his government records of human rights violations, including the use of chemical weapons and the bombing of schools and hospitals. Tens of thousands of people were tortured.

With the backing of Russia and Iran, however, Assad has regained control of much of the territory he lost to rebel forces, and now Egypt, Jordan and several other countries. is different. try to bring him back into the Arab diplomatic pool – a move that could open up commercial interests to all and reduce Iran’s influence – with the UAE leading the way.

“These overturns reflect the UAE’s assessment that Assad is going nowhere and that they have to adjust,” said Steven Heydemann, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, a think tank in Washington. Adjust your policies accordingly.

Camps like this one on the outskirts of Idlib, northwest Syria, have become home to civilians displaced by years of conflict.


Chris McGrath / Getty Images

In recent months, the Syrian pavilion at Dubai Expo has seen a steady stream of visitors eager to meet top officials of the Assad regime. One meeting saw the host country’s Economy Minister, Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, sign an agreement with his Syrian counterpart, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, aimed at boosting trade between the two nations. Mr. Marri tweeted at the time that the UAE was “Syria’s most prominent trading partner”. Other guests making their way to nearby galleries from Kiribati and Vanuatu include representatives from Egypt, Algeria, Poland, Mexico and Malaysia, according to officials.

Meanwhile, Syrian companies have registered foreign entities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in recent months to conceal their origins, evade US and European sanctions and continue doing business. goods range from petroleum products to electronics and apparel, according to people familiar with the matter. Some are openly promoting their products at the Dubai Expo, while in November, Syrian airlines sanctioned by the US Cham Wings commences regular flights from Damascus to Abu Dhabi.

The UAE and Jordan have reopened their embassies in Syria in recent years. Last month, Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, appointed its first ambassador to Damascus in a decade.

Also last month, representatives of the Syrian central bank visited the capital of the UAE to set up a financial channel using private banks to support trade between the two countries, Syrian businessmen briefly said. about the negotiation. Under the agreement being discussed, Syrian importers will pay international suppliers from accounts in the UAE, while banks of the United Arab Emirates will receive the equivalent in account at Syria’s central bank in Damascus, avoiding direct transfers that could be blocked by international sanctions, the people said.

The Emirati embassy in the US and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Syrian state-controlled mobile network operators Syriatel and WafaTel are using shell companies in the UAE to buy Western telecommunications equipment, according to people familiar with the matter. . They said that representatives of the two companies visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi in mid-January to negotiate the deals. Syriatel and WafaTel did not respond to requests for comment.

Other Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have distanced themselves from Mr. Assad, and the United States maintains a hardline stance toward his regime. In recent years, Washington has sought to increase international pressure on Assad to accept a broader role for his opponent. Asked about recent moves by countries in the region to normalize relations with Assad, a US State Department spokesman said: “We call on countries and organizations in the region If you are considering engaging with the Assad regime, consider carefully the atrocities the regime has committed against the Syrian people. people in the past decade. “

Overall, however, the moves by the UAE and others are giving Syrian companies some reason to be optimistic.

“I doubt that in the future,” said Fuad al-Mohamed, an executive at the oil services unit of the Katerji Group, a business group in Syria owned by a pro-regime family. near, we will work with international companies again. legislator and was punished by the West for selling oil to the Assad regime.


What is the significance of the steps towards rebuilding relations between Syria and other Arab countries? Join the conversation below.

Katerji used shell companies in Dubai to buy the computer equipment needed to set up a new bank in Syria, according to a person close to the group. Katerji Corporation did not respond to a request for comment.

In perhaps the biggest development, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed met Mr. Assad in Damascus in November, making him the highest-ranking Saudi official to visit Syria since the start of the conflict. civil war.

For the Assad regime, reconciliation with its Arab neighbors could open the door to new investments aimed at revitalizing the war-torn economy and could lead to joining the Arab League. Arabic, which can enhance its legitimacy.

Jordan reopened its main border crossing with Syria late last year, and King Abdullah II spoke by phone with Assad in October for the first time since the beginning of the 2011 civil war. The king also argued with President Biden during a visit to Washington in July that Jordan needed to talk to the Syrian government on essential issues like security and that continuing to isolate Assad was unsustainable, according to US and Jordanian officials familiar with the talks. negotiations, creating another impetus for businessmen hoping to expand trade.


Traffic can once again go from Syria to Jordan through the Nassib border gate.


louai beshara / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

On Thursday, the Jordanian military said its army had killed 27 smugglers trying to enter the country from Syria. Amman said security cooperation with Damascus would help it curb cross-border smuggling.

“Syria is the next opportunity,” said an entrepreneur from a prominent Dubai family, who recently started exporting Italian shampoo to Damascus and importing garments from a manufacturer in Aleppo. .

UAE has been at the forefront of this trend. The country previously normalized relations with Israel in 2020 in a deal brokered by the Trump administration and promised last year billions of dollars invested in Turkey after years of hatred. UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies also lifting embargo on Qatar in another sign of how old tensions are easing.

President Trump presides over the signing of a Middle East peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020. Photo: Alex Brandon / Associated Press

Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria under the Trump administration, said he hoped Washington would act cautiously in targeting the Emirate’s relationship with the Assad regime. “If our friends are acting contrary to the interests of the United States, we will try to warn them in advance,” he said.

Indeed, there are indications that, in limited circumstances, the United States may choose to support closer engagement with the Syrian economy.

For example, Egypt is pushing to revive a gas pipeline that runs from the Red Sea through Syria to Lebanon. The plan includes repairing existing pipelines running from Egypt to Jordan and into Syria, and a separate pipeline going from Syria to Lebanon.

Despite objections from Mr Assad’s critics, the Biden administration chose to waive sanctions on the countries involved to help secure much-needed fuel for the Lebanese people. endured a worsening economic downturn.

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