Why did the UAE and Bahrain re-open their embassies in Syria?

The official justification that the embassies were opened to counter Iranian influence is hardly believable.

UAE embassy - Syria Reuters
A man works on the United Arab Emirates embassy emblem during its reopening in Damascus, Syria on December 27, 2018 [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

On December 27, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) re-opened its embassy in Syria after seven years. A day later, Bahrain followed suit.

Most analysts described the reopening of the two embassies as a major shift in the policies of the two Gulf states towards Syria and a sign of improving relations between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his Arab adversaries. 

Following the UAE’s announcement, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that “The UAE’s decision … came after the conviction that the next stage requires Arab presence and communication on the Syrian file,” which, the minister added, was necessitated by the deepening influence of Turkey and Iran in the country. 

The Bahraini officials explained their decision in an almost identical manner. In a statement published on its website on December 28, the Bahraini foreign ministry said it decided to reopen its embassy in order to “strengthen the Arab role and activate it in order to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and prevent the risk of regional interference in its affairs”.

Of course, it is understandable that officials in both countries have to find a way to explain their controversial decision to officially restart diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime after they had appeared to back rebels fighting against it for years and had accused the Syrian leader of committing war crimes.

However, the explanation they offered – that they reopened the embassies to curb Iran’s influence in the region – doesn’t add up, and here is why: 

First, it is highly improbable that the two Gulf countries believe that they can counter Iran’s influence in Syria by recognising a regime that is a loyal Iranian ally. Such a plan could only work if al-Assad himself decided to break the historical alliance with Iran, but there is no indication that the Syrian leader is gearing up for such a move. On the contrary, the Syrian regime has stressed several times that Iran and its Shia militias are in Syria by official invitation.

Also, if countering Iran in Syria was an Emirati and Bahraini priority, they would not have given legitimacy and support to a pro-Iran regime that massacred its own people at the expense of the opposition that wants to see both al-Assad – and his Iranian allies – out of their country.

Second, if the UAE and Bahrain really believed that opening an embassy in Syria would help diminish Iran’s influence in the region, they would have done the same with their diplomatic missions in Qatar. In June 2017, the two nations severed diplomatic and economic relations with Doha and imposed a blockade on the Gulf country for allegedly having “close relations with Iran”. A year and a half after the start of the blockade, neither the UAE nor Bahrain seems eager to re-start diplomatic relations with Qatar to “counter Iranian influence” there. 

Third, the UAE has been more than willing to work with Iranian proxies, and even make moves that would ultimately benefit Tehran, when it served its interests. For example, Abu Dhabi did not hesitate to work with the Houthis in Yemen at the beginning of the Yemeni revolution in order to undermine the Islamist al-Islah party in that country. Moreover, the UAE never really severed its own ties with Iran – Tehran continues to be a major trading partner for Abu Dhabi. 

So, if it’s not countering Iran, what is the real reason behind the UAE and Bahrain’s decision to re-open their embassies in Syria?

An anti-democracy alliance 

Bahrain can not make such a major foreign policy move without prior approval from the regional hegemon, Saudi Arabia. While the UAE has at least some leeway when it comes to foreign policy, it is likely that it also consulted with Riyadh before taking such a big step towards normalizing relations with the Syrian regime. So, it is possible that the reopening of the two embassies is primarily a message from Riyadh to Damascus to demonstrate its willingness to find an acceptable compromise, as the end of Syria’s civil war approaches. 

At the same time, it has to be recognised that the UAE’s decision, in particular, is very much in line with its general approach to foreign policy in the region.

As a leading counter-revolutionary force in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi has always had two main strategic goals in Syria: To prevent a democratic transition of power and to stop Islamist parties from taking power. Both of these goals were in line with what al-Assad and Iran wanted in Syria. In fact, in order to realise these goals, the UAE needed al-Assad to win his war against the Syrian people.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Abu Dhabi appeared to be on the side of the opposition, but in reality, it never stopped supporting the regime.

Helping Assad win the war 

Following the outbreak of war in Syria, the UAE opened its doors to a number of al-Assad’s close relatives, including his mother Anisa and his sister Bushra and her children. Moreover, several internationally sanctioned pro-Assad businessmen continued to do business without a problem in the UAE, including his cousin Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man who reportedly controls as much as 60 percent of the country’s economy. 

In 2014, many UAE-based individuals and companies actively aided al-Assad’s war efforts. Some provided the Syrian regime with the fuel it needed to operate its war machine; others, like the Dubai-based Yona Star, acted as shipping agents for the Syrian Air Force, the Syrian Air Force Intelligence, the Army Supply Bureau and the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which has been developing the regime’s biological and chemical capabilities.

In July 2018, the Syrian Cham Wings Airlines – a company sanctioned by the US for transporting militants, weapons and equipment to support the Assad regime – started to operate flights from Damascus to the UAE. One month later, Abdul Jalil al-Blouki, a senior Emirati businessman close to the ruling family in Abu Dhabi visited Damascus, where he met several Syrian officials and discussed several investment opportunities.

Many other Emirati businessmen known to be close to the UAE authorities have also maintained their relations with the Syrian government long after the eruption of the Syrian revolution. Some established new companies in Syria and/or opened branches for their UAE-based companies in the country.

The UAE also never really fully cut diplomatic relations with Damascus and the Syrian embassy continued to operate in Abu Dhabi. 

In this sense, the UAE’s decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus comes as no surprise to close observers of the Syrian war.

Both the Assad regime and Iran are likely to utilise this rapprochement to further promote their “victory narrative” in Syria, strengthen their alliance and alleviate some of the financial difficulties they are currently facing. And for the UAE (and by extension Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), renewed relations will serve as another vehicle to solidify its counter-revolutionary influence in the region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.