In late September, several news outlets confirmed what the local Syrian community already knew: Bushra al-Assad, sister of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and widow of the regime’s intelligence chief, Asif Shawkat) had moved here, to Dubai.
Bushra has always had a tense relationship with her brother, partially due to an alleged personality clash with his wife, Asma. Bushra’s departure from Syria was not a complete surprise following the death of her husband.
However two weeks ago the siblings’ mother, Anisa Makhlouf, also reportedly fled to the glittery emirate.
Her relocation has raised new questions about the Assad women’s flight to the Gulf. Is this the beginning of a trend? What role is the United Arab Emirates playing in these relocation efforts? And what does this mean for the Syrian conflict ?
The UAE has always served as a neutral ground in the Middle East. Dubai has provided safe haven for high-profile disgraced politicians, from Thai leader Thaksin Sinawatra to Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and her family.
With regards to the Syrian conflict, the UAE continues to allow a limited presence of Syrian diplomatic staff at Syria’s local embassy, despite asking its ambassador to leave.
Its vested interest? Stability in the region. The UAE government, while aligned with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s official position against Assad, could theoretically facilitate the departure of regime insiders if they eventually choose to defect.
In the initial weeks and months of the Libyan revolution we saw a systematic series of defections of high-level officials and confidantes of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Moreover, in Libya, many of the defections of former officials came in the early weeks of the conflict, when casualties were minimal.
By contrast, Syria’s defection rate has not been as high, especially from the regime’s inner core. And the opposition has been particularly hostile to any “asylum” for many associated with Assad’s inner circle.
The departure of Bushra and Anisa, however, has been tacitly accepted by the opposition because it shows a potential rift at the core of Syria’s highest-profile political family.
In addition, it could also be used as psychological leverage on the Syrian President himself, even though the women’s move to Dubai could simply be akin to the refuge sought by Aisha Gaddafi, Muammar’s daughter, who left war-torn Libya for Algeria in 2011.
In the latter case, Aisha remained safe and sound in Algeria while continuing to criticize the Libyan opposition .
Thus far, we have not seen the arrival of top regime insiders in Dubai beyond the two Assad women. This could change if violence continues to escalate.
With an increase in global outcry over the war’s systematic violence, it is likely that more members of the Assad family will depart Syria, potentially joining the Assad women in Dubai. It remains to be seen if this will extend to other family members and, eventually, to officials in the regime’s inner circle.