While UAE seeks closer ties with embattled country, US tries to keep Damascus out of Arab League
Some 40 representatives from the United Arab Emirates attended the 61st Damascus International Trade Fair last week despite pressure from the United States to stay away.
Even with participation by Abu Dhabi and other Arab countries, US influence in the region remains strong, as demonstrated by the fact that Syria is still unable to rejoin the Arab League. These factors highlight the complexity of the war-torn nation’s role in the international community.
The trade fair started in 1954 and is widely considered the oldest of its kind in the region. At its peak, it drew thousands who clamored to connect with titans of business or just rub shoulders with celebrities. It was halted for six years during Syria’s civil war, resuming in 2017 as a way, experts believe, to signal that life under President Bashar al-Assad was getting back to normal.
Still, the fair today is a shadow of its former self.
US threats of sanctions against any entity that does business with Assad did not seem to deter the Emiratis’ presence at the fair. Their attendance came against the backdrop of Abu Dhabi reopening its diplomatic mission in Damascus, much to the chagrin of Washington.
A State Department official told The Media Line in a statement: “It is unacceptable and inappropriate for businesses, individuals and chambers of commerce from outside Syria to participate in a trade fair with the Assad regime, particularly at a time when the Assad regime and its allies are viciously attacking innocent Syrians.”
Dr. Hassan Marhig, a lecturer on Syria at the Galilee College in Nazareth, contends that Syria’s inability to rejoin the Arab League is largely due to the US.
“The League of Arab States is still subject to the American position and desires, and this is what Syria [is] fighting,” Marhig told The Media Line. “[Syria’s removal in 2011] from the Arab League came at the request of the United States.”
He believes that the larger-than-usual participation at this year’s trade fair was significant for Assad.
“Strategically, this is a great victory for the Syrian state, and even Washington is aware of this,” Marhig said, adding: “The reality is completely different [than the rhetoric].”
Albin Szakola, a journalist analyzing sanctions against Syria, contends that the UAE’s presence at the trade fair will not affect Dubai’s ties with Washington. The same applies to other Gulf countries that attended.
“The US will keep up its pressure on Gulf states seeking to reengage in Syria, not only the UAE, but also Bahrain,” Szakola told The Media Line. “However, the general ties between Washington and these states are buttressed by strong diplomatic and security understandings. “
Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line: “It is hard to imagine that the UAE government did not alert US officials of their participation in the Syrian trade fair, given the political sensitivities.”
Nevertheless, he says, this shows the limits of current US policy.
“Many members of the UAE’s business community and some government officials view commercial outreach as an apolitical activity,” Mogielnicki said. “Emirati businesspeople expect a post-conflict Syria to offer a variety of trade and investment opportunities.”
Mogielnicki believes recent moves by the UAE indicate that Abu Dhabi is seeking closer ties with Syria in order to counter Iran’s influence on Damascus.
“The Emiratis can rightly claim that a prolonged absence of Gulf Arab influence in Syria will permit Iran to further embed itself in Syria’s political and economic institutions,” he said.
He further contends that an open financial relationship between the two countries can impede Iranian power not only in Syria, but in the region.
“Stronger economic ties between the UAE and Syria serve as a bulwark against growing Turkish and Iranian influence across the Levant, especially in conflict arenas such as Syria and Iraq,” he said.
Galilee College’s Marhig contends that increased engagement in Syria by members of the Arab League will not necessarily open the gates for Damascus to be readmitted.
“I do not think that for the foreseeable future, Syria will return… due to many regional [conditions the body has imposed] and international reasons,” such as US pressure, he said.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)