Syrian President Bashar Assad was in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, his office said, marking his first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011.
In a statement posted on its social media pages, the office says that Assad met with Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai. The two discussed expanding bilateral relations between their countries.
The visit sends the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with Syria’s once widely shunned president.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after the conflict broke out 11 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the war, which displaced half of Syria’s population. Large parts of Syria have been destroyed and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars.
Arab and Western countries generally blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on the 2011 protests that evolved into civil war, and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.
With the war having fallen into a stalemate and Assad recovering control over most of the country thanks to military assistance from allies Russia and Iran, Arab countries have inched closer toward restoring ties with the Syrian leader in recent years.
A key motive for Sunni Muslim countries in the Gulf is to blunt the involvement of their Shia-led foe, Iran, which saw its influence expand rapidly in the chaos of Syria’s war.
The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said the country’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to his palace in Abu Dhabi.
At the meeting, Sheikh Mohammed expressed his hope “this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and tee entire region.”
The report said Assad briefed Sheikh Mohammed on the latest developments in Syria and the two leaders discussed mutual interests in the Arab world. Assad was reported to have left the UAE later on Friday from Abu Dhabi.