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Syria's Assad visits UAE in first trip to an Arab country since civil war – The Washington Post

BEIRUT — Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, on the first visit by Assad to an Arab country since 2011, when popular protests demanding Assad’s ouster erupted in Syria.
State media in Syria and the United Arab Emirates announced the visit and published photos of the two at one of Sheikh Mohammed’s residences in Dubai. (Dubai is one of a federation of seven emirates making up the UAE.) The reports carried almost identical language, saying that Mohammed hoped for peace in Syria and that the meeting addressed relations between Syria and the UAE.
Dubai’s ruler said the UAE is eager to “discover new pathways for constructive cooperation with Syria” and find opportunities that best serve both countries’ interests, according to UAE state media.
Arab leaders ostracized Assad and suspended Syria from the Arab League after his brutal crackdown on protesters evolved into a civil war. Then-Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in 2011 that Syria must stop its “killing machine,” adding: “We cannot allow people to be killed this way.”
The death toll in Syria has only risen since. In September, the United Nations said the war had left at least 350,000 dead, noting that this was an “under-count of the actual number of killings.”
More recently, there has been a sharp change in Syrian perception toward the United Arab Emirates. People in Syria who had, over the past decade, scorned countries that turned against Assad warmed toward the Gulf nation. There was also a spike in stories carried by Syrian state media about the success of the Syrian pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020.
Arab outreach to Assad raises Syrian hopes of a return to the fold
Syrians also found visas to Dubai more easy to come by. In November, the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, visited Damascus and met with Assad, furthering the sense that Syria’s isolation was coming to an end.
The United States stood by its position on Assad after the visit was announced. State Department spokesman Ned Price criticized Mohammed’s decision. According the Associated Press, he said Washington was “profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad, who remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the prewar Syrian population and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children.”
Syria is going through a severe economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Assad’s closest allies — Russia and Iran — are both mired in their own domestic challenges and web of sanctions. War and a long drought have forced Syria to rely on Russian wheat, but the conflict in Ukraine has pushed Damascus to search for alternative sources. Sunflower oil has disappeared from shelves and supply chain disruptions have raised the cost of food.
The Syrian government recently adopted emergency measures to weather the economic fallout from Russia’s assault on Ukraine, saying it expects to ration key commodities including wheat, sugar, rice, potatoes and vegetable oil.
A heavily sanctioned Syria was also further hit when neighboring Lebanon went through its own crises from 2019, including the collapse of its currency. Lebanon acted as Syria’s lung — a hub where traders and business executives could open bank accounts and access dollars.
Syrians opposing Assad were quick to condemn the trip, especially as the day of the visit, March 18, coincided with the 11th anniversary of the outbreak of protests.
But Arab outreach, for Syrians living under worsening conditions, is a lifeline.
Panic buying spreads in Middle East as Russian invasion sparks fear over food and fuel
Syrians hope the consequent resumption of trade with Arab countries would ease much of this economic weight. On Facebook, under a video of a smiling Assad walking with the emir and under photos of them clasping hands, Syrians cheered.
“May Allah make this the beginning of good tides for our beloved country,” one Syrian residing in Russia said.
Another who lives in Syria wrote under another photo: “Assad has won and his enemies [are going] to the trashcans of history.”

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