syria-assad-uae-uae – The Washington Post – Reuters

DUBAI — When he moved to Dubai from Syria late last year, Jimmy al-Jiji was shocked by all the light: the bright buildings, the working lampposts, and the rows of shiny cafes and restaurants.

It had nothing to do with home, a power-hungry place, and pretty much everything else. “Honestly, there were times when my eyes hurt,” he said. He couldn’t sleep his first night in Dubai. “I kept thinking, ‘God, am I really here?’ ”

Jiji, 30, is among a wave of young Syrians, mostly men, who have poured into the UAE from Syria over the past seven months after the Gulf country eased visa restrictions on Syrian tourists as it severed ties with President Bashar al-Bashhar’s government -Assad normalized.

The clearest sign of warming ties came last month when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, welcomed Assad to an Arab country for the first time since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. The visit sparked outrage among opponents of the Syrian government, who represent a rift in their international campaign to ensure Assad’s Syria remains a pariah state.

Arab awareness of Assad raises Syrian hopes of returning home

But for the millions of ordinary citizens living in Assad-controlled areas, the President’s visit to the United Arab Emirates set a horizon of sorts, raising hopes of ending their long isolation and fleeing Syria, hence the optimism jobs and necessities, from electricity to running water, are scarce.

The UAE, along with other regional and western states, has supported Assad’s opponents for years. But the Gulf nation signaled a shift in its commitment to Assad in late 2018 when it reopened its diplomatic mission in Damascus. Then-Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash touted the decision to reopen the embassy as a step toward ending the country’s civil war, while stressing the importance of preserving a “united and capable Arab Syria.”

The UAE’s turnaround, along with the softening of some Gulf state allies’ stance on Syria, has sparked debate over the effectiveness and morality of normalizing relations with a government that has committed massive human rights abuses. At the heart of the discussion are arguments about how best to end Syria’s longstanding civil war and whether the country’s isolation – imposed in part by crippling Western sanctions – is conducive to that goal.

Lost in the debate, however, ordinary Syrians are looking for relief. In interviews, Syrians who had moved to the United Arab Emirates described a difficult home life that focused on survival and nothing else.

“We can never catch up,” said Ammar al-Rajjal, 23, who arrived in the UAE a few weeks ago. He is pursuing higher education and hopes to land a job in road construction, his chosen specialty – accomplishments that would have been impossible before his move.

“I think we lost Syria,” he said.

After arriving in Dubai, Jiji, who had worked in restaurants in Syria, found work as a waiter in a restaurant run by a famous Syrian chef. Now he calls his best friend at home every morning and tries to persuade him to leave. “It’s a waste for you to be in Syria,” he said instead of a hello or hello.

Jiji’s pleas have lost some of their urgency lately: after seeing photos of Assad and the Dubai leader shaking hands, he was no longer concerned that the UAE would stop issuing visas to the Syrians. The visit, he said, “shows that there are relationships that used to be under the table and are now above the table.”

Life in Syria felt like freezing in place and working non-stop just to make ends meet, Jiji said. He had endured much – refusing to leave the northern city of Aleppo during years of bitter fighting between rebels and the government for the city. He was happy when Assad took over the city in 2016.

It was not the end of his country’s woes, and recent years have brought waves of economic ruin.

In the cradle of the Syrian revolution, the renewed violence shows that reconciliation is still not possible

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

Jiji said it was too difficult to survive what he called an “economic war” – a nod to Western sanctions. He began to take stock of his life: With his modest salary, he couldn’t afford a car, a new phone, or a birthday present. Even when he had money, fear for the future kept him from doing it.

“You couldn’t spend that much money in Syria, otherwise worse would come,” he said.

Hassan Dayoub, 27, stayed in Syria to prove there are still curious and hard-working minds who have stayed. Dayoub, who had studied Control Systems Engineering, founded an artificial intelligence club and was invited to a training course in Lebanon in 2018 – a trip that gave him his first impression of Syria’s backwardness.

He was a day late for training after struggling to collect the $2,000 in cash border guards are asking Syrians to use before they can leave the country. When he arrived it was “like going to another planet but functional”.

Dayyoub returned home full of energy. He founded an augmented reality startup and partnered with a Syrian university to help dental students learn applied skills.

But the prospects for his fledgling tech companies in Syria were limited. Like many Syrians, Dayoub did not have a bank account. The Internet is notoriously unreliable. Online payments are difficult due to sanctions. “In Syria,” he said, “apps are sold like a pair of shoes: come collect them, give me money. »

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

Iran is gaining a foothold in eastern Syria, surpassing the Assad regime in recruiting fighters

Today he works 12 to 14 hours a day on his start-up in an incubator in Dubai. He said he thinks Assad’s visit gave Syrians a glimmer of hope, but wasn’t sure whether to be optimistic. “There is no answer,” he said, because when it comes to Syria, “everything is conjecture.”

Rajjal left Syria after high school to settle in Malaysia, one of the few countries where Syrians don’t need a visa. The 23-year-old returned to Damascus in 2019 due to residency issues in an unrecognizable city. “Electricity, water, petrol, fuel, diesel, all these things that are basic, all of these are no longer available,” he said.

Last month he visited Dubai, a place that felt like the future. WiFi is available in most places. Public beaches have solar charging stations.

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

“My problem with Syria is that it feels like we’re still living in the past. Everyone says, ‘We were’ 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 say,” he said.

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