DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria signed a contract Thursday with a group of companies from the United Arab Emirates to build a solar power station in a Damascus suburb, the government announced. It was the latest indication that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Earlier this week, UAE's Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Assad in Damascus, the first such visit since the Syrian conflict started a decade ago. Assad’s office said they discussed ways of developing cooperation and investment opportunities during the meeting Tuesday.
Syrian government forces now control much of the country, thanks to allies Russia and Iran, which have helped tip the balance of power in Assad's favor. The civil war that began in 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced half the country’s population and left large parts of Syria destroyed.
There has been speculation that the Emirati overtures may be seeking to pull Damascus away from Tehran's influence. However, Iran’s state TV reported Thursday that Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a phone conversation with his Emirati counterpart said bilateral relations were of special importance for both countries.
“We are confident that a good trend in improving relations will lead to the full development of relations between the two countries,” Iran's top diplomat was quoted as saying. He also expressed hopes for trade relations between the two.
The report described the visit of Sheikh Abdullah to Syria as a positive step. It also said the UAE foreign minister invited Amirabdullahian to visit the federation and that his Iranian counterpart in return invited him to visit Tehran.
According to Syrian state media, the solar power station will be constructed in the eastern Damascus suburb of Widyan al-Rabie. It would take two years to build and it will produce 300 megawatts at peak rates. The reports did not say how much it would cost, only that it would save 125,000 tons of fuel annually.
It was not immediately clear if the project will be exempted from U.S. sanctions on Syria. The United States has allowed Lebanon, struggling with a major electricity crisis, to receive Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan through Syria.
Last month, Syria’s electricity ministry signed a $115 million contract with an Iranian company to rebuild a power station in a central province in Syria.
The UAE, which initially supported those trying to topple Assad, reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018 but relations have remained chilly. Last month, the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed received a telephone call from Assad in which the two discussed strengthening relations and cooperation.