A laborer prepares a sign for the UAE embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus on December 27, 2018 after its reopening, a sign of efforts to bring the Syrian government back into the Arab fold. Photo: AFP

The United Arab Emirates is steadily upping engagement with government-held Syria, deploying its soft power in the form of humanitarian aid and investment in the local entertainment industry.

The past weeks of Ramadan saw packages of food distributed in Marjeh Square in central Damascus bearing the emblem of the United Arab Emirates. The truck transporting the aid had a sign reading: “Donation from Her Highness Sheikha Latifa Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, wife of the Crown Prince of Al Fujairah” — one of the seven Emirates of the UAE.

As the truck drove slowly through the congested roundabout, people appeared on balconies and rooftops, watching with interest. Some whistled; others clapped. They were relieved that an eight-year crisis with the UAE was now coming to a quiet end, six months after Abu Dhabi re-opened its embassy in Damascus.

Yehya al-Mahmoud, a construction worker from the nearly demolished city of Raqqa, was in the square that day picking up a box of aid. “Surprisingly, everything inside is Syrian-made,” he remarked. The package he received included bread, oil, sugar, lentils, and rice.

“It’s not like the aid provided by the UN, which is all Turkish-made. This package was made by Syrians, for Syrians,” Mahmoud said. 

The humanitarian aid was the first Emirati initiative in Damascus since November 2011, when the Arab League suspended the Syrian government’s membership over its crackdown against demonstrators. Now, the Emirates has changed course, aiming to attract hearts — and empty stomachs.

Moderate Islam

The UAE is also looking to influence minds — in Syria and beyond — bankrolling two Syrian soap operas this Ramadan airing exclusively on Abu Dhabi TV.

The first Maqamat al-Asheq tells the story of a renowned Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, who lived in Damascus centuries ago and is buried on the slopes of Mount Qassioun overlooking the city.

The second, Al-Asheq (The Impassioned), is the tale of the Abbasid-era Sufi philosopher al-Hallaj.

Both preach a version of Islam that both the UAE and Syria are trying to promote, and which radical groups like the Islamic State tried to eradicate over the course of the war in Syria and other territories it seized.

Sufism is an order of peaceful mystics that once prevailed in Damascus under Ottoman rule. Sufi scholars have wide authority to interpret religious issues and take action based on judgement, unless otherwise mentioned in the Quran. Connectivity with God takes different forms, in addition to prayer, and can be achieved through spiritual dancing or religious hymns — two acts that radical groups like ISIS consider un-Islamic.

When ISIS overran the city of Mayadeen in eastern Syria, its militants raided the homes of Sufis, arresting, flogging and often killing members of their order. Because Sufism appeals to Muslims, ISIS saw this brand of the religion as a threat to its power base, more than Christianity, for example.

Sufi clerics like Ibn Arabic and al-Hallaj, portrayed in the new Emirati-funded dramas, in contrast strictly banned the killing of any member of the monotheistic religions.

Like all Muslims, Sufis too believe in a caliphate. But any caliph, they say, needs to come “through brotherly love and fluttering hearts” — in the words of Ibn Arabi — rather than by the sword.

Mutual benefits

The UAE, a hub for entertainment production, has not bankrolled Syria-based productions since it cut ties with Damascus over seven years ago. That boycott caused great harm to the Syrian television industry.

With Gulf money withdrawn, wages dropped for Syrian actors, forcing them to settle for mediocre local salaries or leave the country. Distribution of their work was also greatly affected, as Saudi-owned satellite channels stopped buying Syrian dramas. The sudden UAE return appears to have been warmly welcomed by the Syrian entertainment industry — and by Syrian authorities, who facilitated the production of both works.

A third show, also produced by the UAE this Ramadan, tells a contemporary fictional story based on real events, about a Syrian cleric affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed by both Abu Dhabi and Damascus. Set at the backdrop of the second Gulf War in 1990, it portrays the Brotherhood as having secret ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The Syrian Government outlawed the Brotherhood in the early 1980s, when its leaders tried and failed to stage a revolt against then-President Hafez al-Assad. Membership in the organization — an influential component of the Syrian opposition, especially those based in neighboring Turkey — is a capital offense in Damascus, punishable by death. Abu Dhabi also accuses the Brotherhood of trying to destabilize the UAE, and it suspended relations with Qatar in 2017 over their support for the Egyptian Brotherhood.

Qatar, which has emerged as a key rival of the UAE, continues to host prominent Brotherhood figures, including their spiritual godfather Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, on its territory, while its flagship Al-Jazeera TV gives prime airtime to the group’s leaders.

For Damascus and Abu Dhabi, that promotion of political Islam has provided a common enemy.

Gulf money can help with propaganda efforts against the Brotherhood brand of Islam, while Syrian actors — with their fanbases across the Arab world — can help Abu Dhabi ensure such works are watched widely.

The UAE has also reasoned that it would be wiser to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus than to be on the offensive, as it hopes to gently lure Syria out of the Iranian orbit and back into the Arab one.

Emirati authorities are also hoping to challenge growing Turkish influence and occupation in opposition-held northern Syria. Ankara’s cementing of its presence on Syria has been a red flag for Gulf states, which are furious with Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his sponsorship of the Brotherhood and ties to Iran.

In a further sign of an Arab warning to Syria, the Gulf monarchy of Bahrain, as well as Jordan, reinstated their diplomats in Damascus over the winter, the (now-deposed) Sudanese president visited, and Emirates Airways was toying with the idea of resuming flights to Damascus Airport. These moves came after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a similar initiative toward Iraq in 2017, jumping behind enemy lines and reaching out to the nationalist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

On the back of those embassy openings, the Syrian government had expected a warm embrace from the Gulf — namely Saudi Arabia. A reopening of the Saudi embassy in Damascus would have been logical after Saudi allies the UAE and Bahrain. A restoration of Syria’s membership at the Arab League would have also been appreciated. Yet neither happened, and until now, the phased comeback has failed to carve out a standing for these Arab states that could counterbalance that of Turkey.

US sanctions remain the key stumbling block. Unlike the Iranians or Turks, neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia have invested money in Syria due to these crippling economic restrictions from Washington.

When chronic shortages of heating fuel and gasoline struck Damascus, the only country willing to sell Syria petroleum-related products was Iran. And in February, Damascus signed a series of long-term investment projects with Tehran, following a visit to the Iranian capital by President Bashar al-Assad.

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