Since its military intervention in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, one of Russia’s major foreign policy goals has been to convince Gulf Arab monarchies to come to terms with the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the reacceptance of its “legitimacy”.
A host of developments in Gulf-Syrian relations during the past few years, most recently al-Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, indicate that this Russian strategy has been quite successful.
The UAE, which reopened its embassy in Syria in December 2018, and sent its foreign minister to Damascus in November last year, is the main Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) actor working to accelerate the Syrian regime’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold, following years of relative isolation in the region.
The UAE’s efforts to return Syria to the Arab League point to a growing alignment between Abu Dhabi and the Kremlin that is particularly unsettling to Washington, especially within the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, in which the West has failed to bring the UAE on board with international efforts to squeeze Russia.
The key to understanding this burgeoning relationship, and the UAE’s openness to warmer relations with al-Assad, is a shared antipathy to political Islam and pro-democracy movements in the region.
“The UAE vision for the region, in opposing both Muslim populism and democracy, looks an awful lot more like Putin’s vision than it does Washington’s, so it is natural that the UAE is hedging its US entanglements by keeping on the good side of Russia and its clients,” said Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
For the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Arab Spring revolutions were a threat, and one that needed to be rolled back.
“Assad, as a strongman opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, looks in this context very much like Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom the UAE also supports … Al-Assad’s Baath Party has taken the neoliberal road and does not pose an ideological threat to the Gulf any longer,” added Cole.
The UAE is now much further away from Washington and London’s orbits of geopolitical influence compared with previous points in modern history. The growth of relations between the UAE and Russia, as well as China and India, has been central to Abu Dhabi’s success in diversifying its global partnerships while gaining greater autonomy from its Western partners in an increasingly multipolar world.
The UAE has not been afraid to support Russia’s positions on issues it sees eye to eye with Moscow, and disagrees with Washington. The UAE’s response to the war in Ukraine underscores how far Abu Dhabi has come in terms of gaining greater autonomy from the West.
Yet, for all the tensions that have been brewing between the UAE and the Biden administration, it would be incorrect to conclude that Abu Dhabi intends to walk away from its extremely close partnership with the US. Ultimately, Washington, not Moscow, is the UAE’s security guarantor, underscored by the US’s role in defending the Gulf Arab country from Houthi missile and drone attacks earlier this year.
“Abu Dhabi views Washington as a strategic priority, it’s an irreplaceable relationship,” explained Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University, Abu Dhabi. “I don’t think [the Emiratis] are trying to replace it, but they are trying to diversify their portfolio as self beneficially as possible to put forward what they see as their own interests.”
Thanks to the normalisation of relations with Israel, among other factors, the UAE has a tremendous amount of leverage in Washington. That clout will likely enable it to continue closely aligning with Russia in relation to Syria, Libya, and other sensitive files in the Arab world, while also remaining a country where Russian oligarchs can park their wealth as Western sanctions bite, without worrying about major harm being done to US-Emirati relations.
US-UAE ties are deep enough that the Biden administration will most likely not attempt to seriously downgrade the two countries’ partnership, despite Abu Dhabi’s growing ties to al-Assad and Putin.
“If you listen closely to some past American government officials, they view the UAE as a model government that they’d like to see the rest of the Arab world reproduce,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told Al Jazeera.
“[The Emiratis] buy American arms and they have a peace treaty with Israel. They have this liberal veneer which keeps public opinion somewhat satisfied so that the relationship [with the US] can go forward. They have this Ministry of Tolerance [and Coexistence], which is a public relations exercise,” said Hashemi.
“When you put it all together there are so many overlapping interests, and so many influential voices within the United States that want this relationship to continue, so the possibility of any sanctions directed at the UAE over [al-Assad’s visit] is just inconceivable.”