The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syrians fleeing desperation at home flock to the United Arab Emirates

A normalization deal between the Assad government and the UAE drew outrage, but it also provided an escape route for desperate Syrian youth

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, in Dubai on March 18. (Reuters)
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DUBAI — When he moved from Syria to Dubai late last year, Jimmy al-Jiji was shocked by all the light: the luminous buildings, the functioning streetlights and the rows of brilliant, beckoning cafes and restaurants.

It was nothing like home, a place starved of electricity and most everything else. “Honestly, there were times when my eyes hurt,” he said. On his first night in Dubai, he couldn’t sleep. “I just kept thinking, ‘God, am I really here?’ ”

Jiji, 30, is part of a wave of young Syrians, mostly men, who have flocked to the United Arab Emirates from Syria over the past seven months, after the Persian Gulf country eased restrictions on Syrian tourist visas as it normalizes relations with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The clearest sign of warming ties occurred last month, when Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, hosted Assad on his first to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011. The visit elicited outrage from the Syrian government’s opponents, representing a crack in their international campaign to ensure Assad’s Syria remains a pariah state.

Arab outreach to Assad raises Syrian hopes of a return to the fold

But for the millions of ordinary people living in Assad-controlled areas, the president’s visit to the UAE represented a horizon of sorts, raising hopes for an end to their long isolation as well as escape from Syria, where optimism, jobs and necessities, from electricity to running water, are in short supply.

The UAE, alongside other regional and Western states, backed Assad’s opponents for years. But the gulf nation signaled a shift in its engagement with Assad in late 2018, when it reopened its diplomatic mission in Damascus. Then-Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash framed the decision to reopen the embassy as a step toward ending the country’s civil conflict as he emphasized the importance of preserving a “united, capable, Arab Syria.”

The UAE’s swing, along with the softening stances on Syria by some of the gulf state’s allies, has set off a debate over the efficacy and morality of normalizing relations with a government that has perpetrated mass human rights abuses. At the center of the discussion are arguments about the best way to end Syria’s long civil war, and whether the country’s isolation — enforced in part by crippling Western sanctions — furthers that goal.

Lost in the debate, though, are ordinary Syrians looking for relief. In interviews, Syrians who had relocated to the UAE described a grinding life back home, focused on survival and little else.

“We can never catch up,” said Ammar al-Rajjal 23, who arrived in the UAE a few weeks ago. He is pursuing graduate work and is hopeful he will find a job in road engineering, his chosen field — achievements that would have been impossible before he moved.

“I think we’ve lost Syria,” he said.

After arriving in Dubai, Jiji, who had worked in restaurants in Syria, found work as a waiter at an eatery run by a celebrity Syrian chef. Now, every morning, he calls his best friend back home and tries to convince him to leave. “It is a waste for you to be in Syria,” he says, in lieu of good morning or hello.

Jiji’s pleas have lost some of their urgency lately: After seeing photos of Assad and the Dubai ruler clasping hands, he was no longer worried that the UAE might stop granting Syrians visas. The visit, he said, “shows there are relations that used to be under the table, and are now over the table.”

Living in Syria had felt like being frozen in place and working nonstop just to make ends meet, Jiji said. He had endured plenty, refusing to leave the northern city of Aleppo throughout the fierce years-long battle for the city between rebels and the government. He rejoiced when Assad recaptured the city in 2016.

That was hardly the end of his country’s trials, and the past few years have brought waves of economic ruin.

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Across Syria, in rebel-held or government-controlled areas, residents have learned to live with the shortages, including of cooking gas and gasoline. Historically a breadbasket, the country is suffering from a collapse of wheat production due to a combination of drought and rising prices. The costs of kitchen staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers and lemons have nearly doubled in the past two weeks.

Jiji said surviving what he called an “economic war” — a reference to Western sanctions — was too difficult. He started taking stock of his life: On his modest salary, he could not buy a car, a new phone or a birthday gift for himself. Even when he had money, anxiety about the future stayed his hand.

“You couldn’t spend like that in Syria, out of fear of there being something worse yet to come,” he said.

Hassan Dayoub, 27, stayed in Syria to prove a point: that there are still hard-working, curious minds who remained. Dayoub, who had studied control systems engineering, set up an artificial intelligence club and in 2018 was invited to a training in Lebanon — a trip that provided his first glimpse of how far Syria had fallen behind.

He arrived a day late to the training, after struggling to cobble together the $2,000 in cash that border guards require Syrians to have before they can leave the country. When he arrived, it felt “as if I went to another planet, but one that’s functional.”

Dayoub returned home energized. He launched an augmented reality start-up, partnering with a Syrian university to help dentistry students learn applied skills.

But the prospects for his fledgling technology concerns in Syria were limited. Dayoub, like many Syrians, didn’t have a bank account. The Internet is famously unreliable. Online payments are difficult because of the sanctions. “In Syria,” he said, “you sell apps the same way you sell a pair of shoes: come, pick up, give me cash.”

He questioned the need for sanctions that affect ordinary citizens — for example, the barring of access in Syria to Coursera, the U.S.-based online course provider. How did that help anyone, he asked.

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Now, he works 12-to-14-hour days on his start-up in a Dubai incubator. He said he believes Assad’s visit had provided Syrians a glimmer of hope but was unsure whether to be optimistic. “There’s no answer,” he said, because when it comes to Syria, “everything is guesswork.”

Rajjal left Syria after high school, moving to Malaysia, one of the few countries that don’t require Syrians to get a visa. Because of residency issues, the 23-year-old returned to Damascus in 2019 and to an unrecognizable city. “Electricity, water, gasoline, fuel, diesel, all of these things which are basics, all of these are no longer available,” he said.

He traveled last month to Dubai, a place that felt like the future. WiFi is available in most places. Public beaches have solar power charging stations.

Rajjal visited the Dubai Expo 2020, staged on a sprawling site that hosted pavilions from 192 countries. Syria’s pavilion was lined with oversized sculptures of wheat: once the country’s proud crop, now a symbol of its former glory, because of war.

“My problem with Syria is that you feel like we’re still living in the past. Everyone says, ‘We used to be’ and ‘We had good things’ and ‘We had life,’ ” he said.

“Now, our generation, what have we done? What do we have? We have nothing to speak of,” he said.