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UK criticises Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour for meeting Syrian president

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the UAE last week for the first time since the start of the country's bloody conflict in 2011
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) is embraced by UAE Deputy Prime Minister and owner of Manchester City football club Sheikh Mansour in Abu Dhabi on 18 March 2022 (AFP)

The UK government has criticised a senior Emirati royal after he was pictured hugging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the billionaire deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and owner of Manchester City football club, could be seen warmly embracing Assad when they met in Abu Dhabi on Friday, in the clearest signal yet that the Gulf state is willing to re-engage with Syria's once widely shunned president.

A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said that "it is the UK's firm belief that - in the absence of a change in behaviour by the Syrian regime - strengthening ties undermines the prospect of a lasting and inclusive peace in Syria," the Athletic reported.

According to the Emirates' state news agency WAM, Sheikh Mansour's brother, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) discussed the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria and humanitarian support for the war-ravaged country during his meeting with Assad.

Syria's Assad makes first trip to UAE since start of conflict
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Assad also travelled to Dubai to meet that emirate's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

Jonathan Hargreaves, the UK special representative for Syria, also criticised the visit, writing on Twitter that "after 11 years of conflict Assad's unreformed and unrepentant regime continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people.

"Without changes in behaviour, engagement only serves to undermine collective efforts to encourage Assad to participate in the UN-facilitated political process in good faith. The UK remains opposed to any normalisation of relations with the Syrian regime."

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia, questioned if Sheikh Mansour was a "fit and proper person to be owning a football club" in the wake of the meeting.

Bryant also said it would be "good to see the back of" the City owner, while pointing out the links between Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"What is it that people don't get?" he told the Telegraph. "There's been a form of barbarous, sustained murder going on in Syria, run jointly by Assad, and now Putin is doing exactly the same in a barbaric war of aggression against innocent sovereign Ukraine.

"And some people want to meet up with the bully boys?"

Friday's meetings mark the clearest signal to date of the ongoing rapprochement between Damascus and regional states.

Jordan's king held a much-publicised phone call with Assad in October, and has lobbied for the lifting of sanctions in Washington so his fragile economy can resume trade with its neighbour.

But as a regional powerhouse, the UAE has been at the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate the government in Damascus. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed travelled to Syria in November to meet with Assad, and earlier this summer the two countries resumed direct flights. Syria also had a prominent booth at the 2020 Dubai Expo. 

Syria was expelled from the Arab League and shunned by its neighbours at the start of the country's civil war. Some Gulf powers reportedly saw the conflict as an opportunity to unseat the Assad family, and backed opposition forces during the early years of the conflict.

Now, with fighting having largely subsided and Assad in control of most of the country, Syria's neighbours are recalibrating, driven by concerns over Iranian and Turkish influence, and the economic and security repercussions of leaving the impoverished, war-ravaged state as a pariah on their borders.

At the meeting on Friday, MBZ expressed his hope that "this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and the entire region".

Middle East Eye reached out to Manchester City for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

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