Gulf foreign minister visits Syria as Gulf powers renew rivalry

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Riyadh surprised by the visit of Mohammed bin Zayed, confirming he would meet Syrian president after eight-year war

The United Arab Emirates foreign minister has visited Syria in his highest-profile visit to the country since the start of the country’s eight-year civil war.

Riyadh had not confirmed the visit of Mohammed bin Zayed to Damascus by the Gulf state’s state news agency WAM on Monday, but had only suggested in a news release that he would travel to Damascus.

It comes amid diplomatic efforts between Syria and the Middle East, involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and the UAE.

Riyadh has recently sharply criticised Qatar for what it says is the emirate’s diplomatic and financial support of Islamic State militants. Egypt, meanwhile, is rekindling the Syria issue ahead of elections on 25 March.

The Gulf state has considered an alliance with the United States for at least four years but has little leverage against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another of Qatar’s regional rivals, Bahrain, last month broke diplomatic relations with Doha over the Gulf state’s alleged support for Islamist groups.

Last week, a Saudi official said the kingdom and UAE would set up a military headquarters that would oversee their efforts against Islamist militants and safeguard the two countries’ support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

The Kremlin welcomed Monday’s news of Zayed’s visit, according to a Kremlin statement.

“The president is particularly glad that it was a visit aimed at bolstering bilateral relations,” the Kremlin statement said, referring to President Vladimir Putin.

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