UAE, Saudi Arabia battle for Middle East influence against one another

For the first time since the Syrian war began in 2011, a senior U.S. ally turned to the country’s president to urge President Bashar al-Assad to end the fighting. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, met with Assad in Damascus to deliver a letter from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the royal Abu Dhabi emir. “The crown prince wrote to Bashar and expressed a strong desire for both countries to have a dialogue and achieve an end to all parties’ fighting,” the Yemeni government’s news agency claimed. “Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan will meet with Assad on Wednesday to review options for a dialogue.”

President Trump welcomed the news that Emirati interests was seeking direct talks with Syria’s government. While Trump has said he is willing to work with President Assad, his administration has imposed tough new sanctions on the country over its use of chemical weapons, punishing President Assad for his alleged complicity in last week’s attack.

The leader of Saudi Arabia took a very different approach. Although he has long maintained ties with Assad, King Salman bin Abdulaziz sent a letter of condolence to the Syrian people following the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, and in a statement on Monday he called for Syria to cease its use of chemical weapons. “I pray to God to strengthen your faith in the faithful people of Syria in this difficult period and preserve their honor and dignity,” Salman wrote. “These deeds, carried out by a group of extremists, will not be taken lightly by the Arab nation and its leadership.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been supportive of Saudi Arabia’s policy of imposing strict sanctions on Iran over the regime’s ballistic missile program. “The leadership of Saudi Arabia has taken no option other than to send a strong message to Iran, Iran’s main influence in the region, through cutting off economic and diplomatic ties, which, in itself, sent a clear message,” Mohammad Kamal al-Manahed, of the Saudi British Press Agency, said last week. “The kingdom has decided to sever all ties with Tehran and is on a clear path that its Islamic nations are also weighing on the policies of the international community, Iran and the international community.”

Ali al-Omair, a senior political analyst from the UAE, said the relationship between the two countries was an “unconventional, but legitimate one” in light of the last three years of devastating violence. On Sunday, the Emirati officials met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington to discuss regional security issues. “I can’t think of a more valuable partner in the region than the UAE in facing common challenges such as terrorism, extremism, and dealing with the Iranian-backed Houthi group,” Tillerson said.

Perhaps President Trump will agree.

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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