The office posted a statement on its social media channels stating that Assad met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who is vice president and prime Minister of the UAE. He also meets with the ruler of Dubai. It said that the two men discussed expanding bilateral relations between their respective countries.
This visit is the strongest signal yet that the Arab world is ready to re-engage Syria's once highly disregarded president. This is all happening against the background of the raging conflict in Ukraine, where Assad's main ally and Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing with a military offensive that has been in its fourth week. It has been laying siege to Ukrainian cities including Kyiv. Syria supported Russia's invasion and blamed the West for provoking it.
After the outbreak of conflict 11 years ago, Syria was expelled by the 22-member Arab League. It was also boycotted in part by its neighboring countries. The war has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of Syria's population to flee. Large areas of Syria were destroyed, and reconstruction would require tens to billions of dollars.
Assad was generally blamed by the West and Arab countries for the brutal crackdown on 2011 protests, which eventually led to civil war. They also supported the opposition during the initial stages of the conflict.
Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said that Assad's visit was an attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad. He remains responsible and accountable to many deaths and sufferings in Syria, including the displacement of more then half of pre-war Syrian civilians and the arbitrary detentions and disappearances of over 150,000 Syrian children, men, and women.
During Syria's civil war, Assad has only visited Russia and Iran. Iran has sent Iranian-backed fighters to fight alongside his forces, and Tehran has provided billions of dollars in aid to the Syrian government. This assistance, together with Russian air power has helped turn the tide for Assad.
With the war in Syria at an impasse and Assad regaining control of most of the country through military assistance from his two allies , Arab nations have been moving closer to restoring ties with the leader in recent years.
In late 2018, the UAE reopened the embassy in Syria. This was the largest Arab gesture toward the Assad government. Relations remained cold. The Emirati foreign minister visited Damascus last fall to meet with Assad. This was the first time since 2011 that the top diplomat from the country had visited Damascus. The United States, a close Emirati friend, criticized the visit, saying that it wouldn't support any normalization of relations with Assad's regime.
Sunni Muslim countries made overtures to the Persian Gulf in order to stop Iran's involvement in the war in Syria.
However, the rapprochement could be beneficial for both sides.
Syria must improve relations with oil-rich nations as its economy is being hampered by Western sanctions. It also faces the challenge of rebuilding after war. Many thousands of Syrians work in the UAE and send money home to their families.
According to the UAE's state-run WAM news agency, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the country, welcomed Syria's Bashar Al-Assad at his Abu Dhabi palace.
Sheikh Mohammed expressed hope that "this visit would be a beginning of peace, stability, and for Syria and the entire region."
According to the report, Assad informed Sheikh Mohammed about the latest developments in Syria. The two leaders also discussed their mutual interests in the Arab World. Assad is reported to have fled the UAE from Abu Dhabi later Friday.
Sheikh Mohammed stressed to Assad the importance of Syria as a "fundamental pillar for Arab security" and that he hoped that the UAE could facilitate its development. According to the report, the leaders also discussed the importance "of Syria's territorial integrity" and the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Similar vague statements stated that Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed had affirmed UAE's determination to "discover new pathways of constructive cooperation with Syria" and did not mention the war.