The Ruthless Realpolitik of the United Arab Emirates
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed has cozied up to Bashar al-Assad, and relations with the U.S. are at an all-time low.
“We are grateful for and committed to the partnership we have with the UAE,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week after meeting with Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ for short), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, in Morocco. The crown prince heard a very different message earlier this month after he became the first Arab leader to host Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Sen. Jim Risch, the even-tempered Republican from Idaho and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that he was “sickened to see the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad on a visit to #Dubai.” Rep. Gregory Meeks, the Florida Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also had sharp words for the Emiratis, saying they had welcomed a killer.
These expressions of anger seem unlikely to sway MbZ, who has gradually but persistently escalated his engagement with the Syrian regime over the past four years. In 2019, the crown prince’s younger brother Abdullah, the Emirati foreign minister, explained that disagreements with Syria regarding its domestic affairs had become less important in light of growing Iranian influence in Damascus amid the “absence of a strong Arab role.” In other words, all could be forgiven (or at least forgotten) if there were a chance to create some daylight between Assad and his Iranian patrons.
The pace of Emirati engagement accelerates when the White House appears less interested in Syria and in holding Assad accountable for war crimes. Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, only days after former President Donald Trump announced a sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria (which he later rescinded). Assad’s visit last week follows the Biden administration’s tacit approval of Arab engagement with Damascus.
At first glance, the Emirati brand of realpolitik appears both savvy and ruthless. A closer examination shows that it is only ruthless. While MbZ may not respond to appeals to his conscience, he may want to reconsider whether drawing closer to Assad serves his interests. Arab governments have no real prospect of matching Tehran’s influence in Damascus; while the administration has signaled it will tolerate engagement with Syria, a congressional backlash could do lasting damage to Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington, as it did to Saudi ties with the United States.
What’s more, the Emiratis seem to be discounting the risk of antagonizing the White House even while counting on it to insulate them from the bad press generated by hosting Assad. Axios reported in late March that Assad’s visit to the UAE blindsided the Biden administration, which learned about the visit from news coverage. In contrast, both the Egyptians and Israelis received briefings. Also last month, MbZ rejected a White House request to speak with Joe Biden about the war in Ukraine, although the crown prince spoke with both Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. Bilateral relations are at a historic low point.
Still, as the Emiratis likely expected, the Biden administration restricted itself to pro forma criticism of Assad’s visit to the UAE. State Department spokesman Ned Price pronounced himself “profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar Al-Assad.” Yet Price carefully avoided saying that the Biden administration would take any measures to hold MbZ accountable. As Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote, the administration’s Syria policy “is one in which the United States publicly opposes normalization but privately looks the other way.”
In fact, the administration made the pivotal decision last year that set off a wave of outreach to Damascus by numerous Arab governments. In August, U.S. Ambassador to Beirut Dorothy Shea announced that Washington favored the inclusion of the Assad regime in a pair of regional energy deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Suffering from pervasive blackouts, Lebanon wants to buy gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan, a plan that requires importing those purchases through Syria. Yet under the Caesar Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in late 2019, the executive branch must impose sanctions on those who do business with the Assad regime, including foreign governments.
During its first months in office, the Biden administration warned Arab partners that the Caesar Act was the law of the land and enforcing it was mandatory. Yet amid persistent lobbying from Amman, Beirut, and Cairo, the administration chose to forgo enforcement. After Washington came out in favor of the gas and electricity deals, ministers from Arab governments began to take meetings with their Syrian counterparts after years of keeping them at arm’s length. King Abdullah of Jordan, who had been the first Arab leader to call on Assad to step down, even accepted a personal phone call from him. MbZ made his most visible move in November, sending his younger brother Abdullah, the UAE foreign minister, to meet with Assad in Damascus.
Washington’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Assad’s patrons in Tehran has also set the stage for Abu Dhabi to reconcile with Damascus. Given that Iranian troops and proxies played an integral role in the Syrian regime offensives that inflicted massive civilian casualties over the past decade, Emiratis may wonder how the State Department can say legitimizing Assad is out of bounds.
Biden’s pursuit of a revised nuclear deal with Iran despite the UAE’s deep reservations has also made the Emiratis less inclined to avoid provocations like hosting Assad. In their view, the pursuit of a deal has led the Biden administration to make concessions that damage Emirati interests, such as removing Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). The Houthis responded by intensifying their war against Yemen’s internationally recognized government, whose principal supporters include the UAE.
In January, the Houthis struck the UAE itself with missiles, killing three civilians in Abu Dhabi. A week later, U.S. forces shot down a pair of missiles headed for Al Dhafra Air Base near the Emirati capital, where 2,000 Americans are stationed. The administration described the strikes as terrorist attacks but did not relist the Houthis as an FTO. Now, Washington may even remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the FTO list—the Guards’ elite Quds Force is responsible for arming the Houthis and other proxy forces.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the UAE abstained from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Moscow. The apparent cause was Abu Dhabi’s frustration with what it saw as the lackluster U.S. response to the Houthi attacks. MbZ’s refusal to accept Biden’s phone call followed shortly thereafter.
With the U.S.-UAE relationship at such a low point, and Washington engaging directly with Tehran, why shouldn’t Abu Dhabi attempt to limit Iranian influence in Damascus by reaching out to Assad? Western analysts have often suggested this is the natural policy for Gulf states to pursue. What these arguments miss is that Assad owes his survival to Tehran, which sent thousands of its own troops and tens of thousands of militia fighters to beat back rebel forces. Tehran also spent tens of billions of dollars to prevent a financial implosion of the Syrian regime. This support—especially the continuing shipment of oil—remains essential despite the advances Assad has made on the battlefield.
If MbZ hopes that Moscow—Assad’s other foreign patron—will compensate for any shortfall in Iranian aid, he should think again, especially now that the Kremlin must contend with wide-ranging U.S. and European sanctions as well as the cost of its war in Ukraine. Unlike Iran, Russia has never been willing to put a significant number of troops on the ground in Syria. Rather than bolstering Assad’s finances, Moscow has pushed for mineral rights and other forms of compensation for its military assistance.
Meanwhile, Arab states have proven themselves to be fair weather friends at best. They suspended Assad from the Arab League in 2011 and supported Syria’s armed opposition, with many sending weapons. The relationship between Damascus and Abu Dhabi is fated to be transactional. Syria would welcome reconstruction funding, but it would be hard for the Gulf states to match what Iran provides, especially if the United States lifts sanctions as part of a revised nuclear deal, clearing the way for Iran to earn tens of billions each year from oil exports. Moreover, substantial Emirati investments in Syria would require an open defiance of U.S. sanctions, a far greater provocation than hosting Assad.
For the UAE, the benefits of good relations with Washington are far more tangible. At the moment, Abu Dhabi is in the process of buying more than $29 billion of advanced weapons from the United States and hosts more than 3,500 U.S. military and civilian personnel. Yet arms exports can easily stall, especially if an aroused Congress chooses to stand in the way. Hearings on human rights and other difficult subjects may embarrass a foreign government at inopportune moments.
MbZ should learn from the uproar provoked by the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Abu Dhabi should be wary of gestures like hosting Assad that suggest a divergence in values of sufficient depth to inflict lasting damage on bilateral ties with the United States.
It may not seem fair to suggest that the UAE avoid giving offense to Washington when so much of American policy is at odds with Emirati interests. What’s more, MbZ may bridle at the notion that he ought to distance himself from Assad while the Biden administration endorses energy deals that benefit Damascus. Yet practitioners of realpolitik know that fairness is rarely a characteristic of international relations. The United States is a superpower while the UAE is a petrostate with a few more than a million citizens. At least in this instance, doing what America wants entails doing the right thing, and that means rejecting reconciliation with the unrepentant war criminals in Damascus.
David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.