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The UAE’s unclear role in Syria’s return to the fold of the Arab League

May 12, 2023 at 12:45 pm

UAE’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv, Mohamed Mahmoud Al Khaja (2nd L) and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (2nd R) sign a customs agreement near Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu (C) in Jerusalem on March 26, 2023 [Israeli Gov’t Press Office (GPO) – Anadolu Agency]

I begin this article with prayers for the souls of the righteous martyrs of the Gaza Strip, and curses for the fascist occupation forces that attack our people in occupied Palestine. As the enemy’s bombs and missiles hit home in Gaza, the Arab countries remain silent, despite the killing of children, women and Palestinian leaders. And yet, when a Zionist is wounded, the Palestinian people are labelled terrorists by the same countries for carrying out barbaric and uncivilised acts.

Last weekend, Israel hosted the first “Independence Day” celebration in the UAE, so I wonder what the government in the UAE wants from returning Syria to the Arab embrace. Is there still something that we can call the Arab embrace? The Arab world has been torn to shreds; its hands are paralysed; its heart is empty; and its soul is dying. The question for the observer today revolves around the UAE’s role in Syria’s return to the Arab League, and the motivation for its diplomats to push for it.

The UAE found receptive ears at the league ready for Syria’s return, not least because countries such as Oman, Bahrain, Algeria and Tunisia had either already restored relations with Damascus; had not severed them in the first place — Oman; or were preparing to restore them. This prompted UAE diplomats to play an active and dynamic role in this context, with possible motives perhaps including its desire to prove its regional presence and effectiveness, similar to what Qatar has done in many regional and international fields. Qatar was active in resolving issues in Afghanistan, and the prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the US; it mediated the release of Bulgarian nurses in Libya; produced an agreement between Lebanese parties; mediated between the Yemeni government and the Houthis; has been involved in successive truces between Israel and the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip; has helped in the Darfur problem; and was involved in attempts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas. The list goes on.

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Perhaps the UAE found itself less effective and, indeed, unattractive to Arab eyes, since most of its regional and African involvement has not been through clean operations gaining it the respect of the Arab and international world. It lost its reputation in Africa and did itself a disservice, especially in its interventions in Sudan, Libya and Somalia, among other places. It may have found a suitable opportunity to return Syria to the sagging Arab body, thinking that this would be a positive act that would wash away its previous disappointments and scandals, but while the return of Syria does not appeal to some at an official level, it doesn’t appeal at all to most of the general public.

Perhaps what it did was out of spite against the Syrian opposition, of which the Islamists are a part, because they are the UAE’s nemesis. It sees them in its worst nightmares and believes that anything related to the Islamic movements, including the peaceful preaching groups, is a threat. The exception is the Sufi movement, which is fully subject to the will of the ruler of the UAE. This is the opposite of what it was during the popular resistance to colonialism, especially in North Africa.

Since the UAE has become one of Israel’s arms in the region and recently celebrated the establishment of the occupation state, with one of its obedient citizens singing the Israeli national anthem, it will not take any action against Israeli interests. If we try to understand the motives of the former in reinstating Syria in the Arab League, based on its alliance with the latter, then the UAE seeks to distance Iran and Hezbollah from Syria as a service to the occupation state as part of a deal based on enticing deals and gifts. This is something that Iran cannot offer Syria. I do not rule out the possibility of the UAE seeking to acquire as many Syrian reconstruction projects as possible in order pay aid with one hand and take it back with the other, and to block some of the other countries that dream of participating in the reconstruction efforts.

The possibility I believe is the most likely is that the UAE may be seeking to further ignite the Syrian fire, as I have not seen, even once, a clean intervention by the UAE during the rule of Mohammed Bin Zayed. I do not know if the price of reconciliation agreed with Syria will be conditional upon the return of the Syrian refugees, or if the matter was left undiscussed. It is likely the latter, to complicate matters for Turkiye and other refugee host countries, and to indirectly block potential understandings with Turkiye, which would muddy the scene and lumber the Syrian opposition and host countries with domestic crises. Military action may return to its previous level, based on Syria avoiding its obligations towards the displaced and detainees.

In the fierce competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE that has begun to surface with a lot of clarity, the UAE is trying to steal the limelight from the Kingdom, and play a role that puts it at the forefront of the Arab countries that are capable of action and influence. It is now proud of what it has done, and feels that it is above everyone else, and that its influence is visible

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Bin Zayed is a competitive man who is obsessed with comparing sizes, weights and appearances that would place the UAE in a position disproportionate to its size and influence. He knows that had it not been for oil and the bags of dirhams that are despatched around the world, he and his state could not have played with human destinies, nor had a negative effect on the policies of poor countries. The UAE destroys what it wants to destroy to the point that one gets the impression that it loves evil and get high on it.

The oppressed and homeless Syrians will not forget, nor will the grieving widows forgive Bin Zayed for what he did for the benefit of the Syrian regime, at the expense of the people’s interests and their desperate need for stability and a safe return home. The breakthrough that he has made in the Syrian issue and his success in influencing Arab countries to vote in favour of the Syrian regime will remain a shameful stain on his forehead, as well as that of his allies and accomplices.

Translated from  Arabi21, 9 May 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.