Beyond Israel’s borders: Why did Abu Dhabi return its ambassador to Damascus now?

Even as Israel’s far-right celebrates at a conference on resettlement of Gush Katif, Arab countries work to restore ties with Syria and an economic crisis deepens in Egypt

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, right, shakes hands with the new United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Syria Hassan Ahmad al-Shihi and receives his credentials, in Damascus, Syria, January 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, right, shakes hands with the new United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Syria Hassan Ahmad al-Shihi and receives his credentials, in Damascus, Syria, January 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)

About a year ago, Syria was re-accepted as a member of the Arab League. Last week, Hassan Ahmad al-Shihi, the first Emirati ambassador to Syria in 13 years, arrived in Damascus. The Emirati embassy in Damascus opened in 2018 but the ambassador’s office had remained empty until now.

Syria’s economic situation continues to deteriorate. According to UN estimates, 90% of Syrians live in poverty. The Western sanctions that were slapped onto the country in 2011 after the start of civil war in the country don’t enable direct investment in the Syrian economy, and in any case, with Iran controlling the capital, Arab nations are in no hurry to invest in Damascus.

The arrival of the Emirati ambassador is likely more related to security matters and the activities of the Iranian militias in Syria’s territory. These militias also deal in drugs and assist with the country’s Captagon drug empire, which is sponsored by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

When Syria returned to the Arab League, there was talk of the region trying to once again integrate it into the family of Arab nations, in part to prevent the flooding of their cities with Syrian Captagon. But no change has been seen on this front, and in recent months, heavy battles have been waged between drug dealers, supported by Iranian militias, and the Jordanian army.

The United Arab Emirates has a clear interest in defending Jordan and preventing the expansion of the war in Gaza to Syria and Lebanon. The new Emirati ambassador in Damascus will, therefore, be very busy.

The economic crisis in Egypt worsens

The Egyptian parliament approved new amendments last week to its military jurisdiction law regarding security and defense for public and essential facilities. According to this law, all crimes against “public and essential facilities” in the country are under the jurisdiction of the military judicial system.

The amendments give the army’s officers and noncommissioned officers appointed by the defense minister the authority to enforce the law more generally. De facto, the Egyptian army, which is an critical foundation of the regime, is significantly expanding its authority.

Egyptian military personnel stand alert at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza Strip, in Rafah, Egypt, October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

Is the palace in Heliopolis worried about disquiet and a wave of protests?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was recently elected for another term and there do not seem to be any political powers that can seriously challenge him and his regime. Still, the economic crisis is deepening while high inflation and the damage to profits from the Suez Canal because of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are creating conditions for instability.

The high cost of living affects every area of life in Egypt. Media service prices rose by some 30% since the beginning of January, public transportation rose by 20%, and basic foods rose by 15%-30%.

To deal with the severe economic crisis, Egypt needs to modernize and promote more transparency to encourage investors. The new laws legislated last week are not likely to help with those goals.

Extreme right risks leading Israel into diplomatic abyss

As the ground offensive continues in the Gaza Strip, Israelis are increasingly faced with diametrically opposed scenarios for the day after the war: Should Israel fortify its northern and southern borders, or construct settlements in the heart of Gaza as a sort of “little Switzerland” surrounded by poverty, disease, and destruction? Advance normalization with Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to strengthen common interests, or become an isolated and despised state?

Those questions have already been answered by those who attended and danced at the Settlements Bring Security conference in Jerusalem last week. Calling for Israel to reestablish settlements in the Gaza Strip, their messianic vision does not take the fabric of the Middle East into account.

The settlement movement, which began with Jews taking over the Palestinian-owned Park Hotel in Hebron in 1968, now has its eyes again set on the Gaza Strip, where Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and citizens from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005 in a move that was traumatic for parts of the country.

Right-wing ministers and MKs dance during the ‘Settlements Bring Security’ conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Those who gathered last week are not concerned with the potential collapse of Jordan, which historically has been a refuge for Palestinians fleeing the West Bank, but rather see the war as an opportunity to expel all the Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

They are unperturbed by the destruction of the vision of peace fostered by former prime minister Menachem Begin and former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

And if Saudi Arabia, which has thus far not said no to the process of normalization with Israel that began well before the war, decides to turn its back on the Jewish state because of these extremists, they’ll merely say good riddance.

Israel is currently at a critical crossroads. It can go down the regional road, which will eventually strengthen its standing in the Middle East and around the world, enable normalized relations with most nations in the region, and connect the Middle East to India.

This road passes through Ramallah and Gaza and involves a diplomatic horizon, negotiations, difficult compromises, and a lot of effort.

The second road, the Gush Katif path, leads to diplomatic and regional isolation, ceaseless war, and deadly damage to the State of Israel’s interests.

Now the question is whether Israel will get on the fast train to Saudi Arabia or whether it’ll tumble into the messianic Gush Katif abyss.

The writer, a former member of Knesset, is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and executive director of ROPES.

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