On March 18, the Tehran- and Moscow-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad came to Abu Dhabi, where he had an audience with the Emirati crown prince Mohammad bin Zayed, leading some to wonder if the UAE remains a stalwart of the regional anti-Iran coalition. But a few days later, bin Zayed flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with the country’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The three reportedly discussed containing Iran, the situation in Ukraine, and trade ties. And yesterday and today Israel is hosting another summit in the Negev, attended by the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the UAE, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Eyal Zisser sees behind this flurry of diplomacy an effort led by the Emirates, and backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to shore up its alliances in anticipation of a nuclear deal that will give Iran “a tailwind for further belligerence across the Middle East.” He explains:
Israel has adopted an aggressive approach to the Iranians, predicated mostly on trying to dislodge them wherever they have a foothold, especially in Syria. . . . If Israel is the bad cop, then the Emiratis have cast themselves as the good cop. Many saw [Assad’s visit to Abu Dhabi] as legitimizing the tyrant from Damascus, but the truth is that it was Assad, a key member of the axis of evil (along with Hizballah and Iran), who granted legitimacy to the Abraham Accords—and to the normalization between Israel and the UAE, which just recently hosted President Isaac Herzog.
Thus the Emiratis are trying to foil Iran’s machinations, not through military strikes but by removing the keystone of the structure Tehran is building in the region—Bashar al-Assad. It will be difficult and probably impossible to sever Assad from the Iranians, but it is possible to convince him to try harder, as he has been doing regardless in recent months, to limit Iran’s activities on his soil.
This is also linked to the Jordanian king Abdullah’s planned visit to the Palestinian Authority (PA) later this month, which is meant to ensure the PA does not disrupt the aforementioned efforts and keeps the peace. When the Abraham Accords were signed, Abdullah was acrimonious, but now appears fully on board with the regional stratagem.