Emirati investment in regime areas: Economic salvage or isolation break?
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
The opening of Emirati field hospitals in Syria over the past few months has been an indication of the UAE’s rising rapprochement with the Syrian regime, although Abu Dhabi had normalized its relationship with Damascus since 2018 when it opened its embassy in the Syrian capital after closing it in 2012 with other Gulf states (not including the Sultanate of Oman) due to the regime’s use of excessive force against protesters.
In the northern Syrian governorate of Aleppo, with a capacity of 120 beds, 40 of which are intensive care beds, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Hospital was opened with the support of the Emirates Red Crescent.
During his participation in the opening on 21 November, the Minister of Health in the regime’s government, Hassan Mohammad al-Ghobash, had associated this move with the humanitarian response to the emerging Covid-19 pandemic, as well as with supporting the Syrian health sector and strengthening the friendship and cooperation between the two countries. They are the same reasons he also mentioned on 30 October during his participation in the opening of a hospital bearing the same name in al-Muhajireen neighborhood in Homs governorate.
The hospital also came with the support of the Emirates Red Crescent with a capacity of 120 beds, 20 of which are for intensive care, while the number of beds differed only in the hospital that al-Ghobash opened near the Conference Palace in the countryside of Damascus in late July, with an Emirati presence as in previous times. The hospital had 135 beds, 40 of which were intensive care beds.
The succession of Emirati support in this sector is received by the regime’s fragile medical infrastructure at the level of construction, equipment, services, and capacity.
On 11 November 2021, the Ministry of Electricity in the regime’s government announced the signing of a cooperation agreement with an unnamed “consortium of Emirati companies” for the construction of a 300-megawatt photovoltaic plant in the Wedyan al-Rabea area near the Tishreen power station in the countryside of Damascus in a maximum of two years following the ratification. The default life of the station is 25 years, and it will provide 125,000 tons of fuel annually at a value of 117 billion SYP.
This economic project stems from the regime’s desperate need for electricity, which for years has been distributed according to a rationing system that deprives citizens of it for periods exceeding 20 hours per day in most areas. It was preceded by another project in another essential sector that is no less important, which is water.
On 23 September of the same year, the local pro-regime newspaper, al-Watan, reported that the UAE is moving to support and provide technical assistance and transfer the necessary expertise to contribute to the rehabilitation and development of water systems and infrastructure in Syria.
The newspaper relied on the statements of the UAE Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, Suhail al-Mazrouei, during his meeting with the Syrian Minister of Water Resources, Tammam Raad, on the sidelines of the opening of the 5th Arab Water Forum, in the presence of participants from 22 Arab countries.
This trend was accompanied at the time by an acute water crisis in regime-held areas, which was demonstrated by the Syrian Trading Corporation by selling mineral water to citizens in its halls via the “smart card” system without registering a request, specifying citizens’ “allocations” to two large water bags and a small one for every two weeks, to be delivered at once for those who wish.
Regarding the nature of economic support and the UAE’s turning towards investments of this kind and their purposes, Eyad Hamid, the senior researcher in the Syrian Legal Development Program, believes that the media gains of these steps outweigh the economic reality desired for their implementation, given that the regime uses them to convey international messages that give the illusion of breaking the isolation in which it lives and that matters are moving in the direction of normalization. They are also carriers of internal messages that economic conditions are headed for the better.
Prior to the 2011 revolution in Syria, the UAE was one of the largest Arab countries investing in Syria, with total investments estimated at 20 billion USD.
During his interview with Enab Baladi, the researcher also pointed out the residence of close associates of the regime in the UAE that seeks to transform Dubai into an international financial and trade center; it attracts the money of escapees from sanctions (Russian businessmen for example) without inquiring about the source of such funds.
The United Arab Emirates’ investments in Syria remain narrow owing to United States sanctions that curb economic expansion with the regime, as well as Syrian factors such as economic mismanagement, corruption, and destroyed infrastructure. This significantly limits the investment opportunities currently available and their economic viability. In this case, the UAE is competing with Russia and Iran for what is left in Syria.
In March 2021, the Emirati Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, stated that the biggest challenge facing coordination and joint action with Syria is the US-imposed Caesar Act on the Syrian regime.
Maintaining the act was considered to make it extremely difficult not only for states to act but also for the private sector. He stressed that his country will discuss the matter with the United States.
Researcher Hamid considers that there are regional considerations behind the UAE support, which are related to competition with neighboring countries, lining up in a particular ideological stream, or being hostile to another. But it also builds its interests in recognition of Assad’s victory and survival in power.
The Syrian regime does not have much to offer the UAE in this context as much as it is able to harm it, with the exclusion of the development of relations between the two parties from its current situation, in its economic and political aspects, according to the researcher.
The charm of politics
Facilitating Syrians’ travel to the Emirates, Golden Visas, and Syrian participation in the various events, festivals, and conferences hosted by Abu Dhabi; all these moves and “manifestations of friendship” are preceded and accompanied by sustained political activity that has broken the deadlock in the past and brought the UAE closer to the Syrian regime than any other Gulf country at present.
On 18 March, the UAE was the first Arab country to receive the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, on an official visit since the beginning of the popular protests in Syria in 2011.
During his visit, al-Assad met Emirati leaders, headed by the then Vice President (current president), Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
This meeting was preceded by many preliminaries, including al-Assad’s reception of the UAE Foreign Minister in October 2021 and his phone call with the current Emirati president in the same month, after a year and a half of the previous contact that Abu Dhabi had initiated in March 2020 to discuss the issue of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
After freezing its membership in 2011, the UAE had called on several occasions for the regime’s return to the Arab League, in a position that contradicts the vision of its Gulf “brothers,” specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, Pr. Ahmad Korabi linked the Emirati relationship with the Syrian regime to Abu Dhabi’s position on the wave of the Arab Spring in general, which is generally conservative and supportive of the “counter-revolution” movement.
According to Korabi, the matter is not related to the UAE achieving direct benefits, and it is also unrealistic to believe that Abu Dhabi is seeking to lure the regime and distance it from Iran, as this mechanism has already proven its failure over the course of four years of Emirati-Syrian relations, during which the regime has increasingly fallen under Iranian influence and drowned Arab countries with drugs.
Based on these indicators, it appears that an Emirati strategic approach is driving the relationship, given that closing the Syrian file may close the file of the Arab Spring revolutions in Abu Dhabi’s view.
The Emirati rapprochement with the regime can be considered one of the fruits of an Israeli-Emirati rapprochement as well since al-Assad’s survival in power is in Israel’s interest. It is likely that the rapprochement is a regional understanding in which the UAE participates, while Russia urges it and Israel does not mind it, according to the researcher.
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