President Bashar Assad of Syria has travelled to the United Arab Emirates, marking his first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, the country’s presidency office said.
In a statement posted on its social media pages, the presidency office says Assad met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, on Friday.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbours 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.
The visit sends the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with Syria’s once widely shunned president.
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 Persian Gulf is to blunt the involvement of their Shiite-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 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 the entire region”.
The report said Assad briefed Sheikh Mohammed on the latest developments in Syria and they discussed mutual interests in the Arab world.
Assad was reported to have left the UAE later on Friday from Abu Dhabi.
Assad has very rarely travelled outside the country during Syria’s civil war, only visiting Russia and Iran.
Tehran has given the Syrian government billions of pounds in aid and sent Iran-backed fighters to battle alongside his forces — assistance that, along with Russian air power, has helped turn the tide in Assad’s favour.
Syria badly needs to boost relations with oil-rich countries as its economy is being strangled by crippling western sanctions and as it faces the task of post-war reconstruction.
The UAE is also home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf Arab nation and send money to their relatives at home.