A delegation of at least 40 businessmen from the United Arab Emirates attended a state-backed trade fair in Syria's capital, defying U.S. warnings against doing business with the government and associates of President Bashar Assad.
The UAE, one of Washington's main regional allies, has started to forge closer ties with Damascus to counter the influence of its rivals Iran and Turkey. In December, it reopened its embassy there, angering Washington.
Representatives attended from companies such as construction firm Arabtec Holding, and other investment firms headed by prominent Emirati businessmen, as well as members of the chambers of commerce, delegates said.
The delegates left Damascus on Thursday and Friday.
During the war, the UAE did support armed groups opposed to Assad. But its role was less prominent than that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and mainly centered on ensuring that Islamist forces did not dominate the uprising.
Businesses are exploring trade possibilities and assessing their aims and budget, said Farouk Assassa, Senior Administration Manager at Essa Al-Ghurair, a Dubai-based supply chain provider and trader of agricultural commodities.
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"This issue will take time to determine, but everything happens gradually," he told Reuters TV in Damascus.
He said he was not worried about the U.S. warning that companies dealing with the Syrian government could face sanctions. The large size of the UAE delegation showed others shared his view, he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Syria wrote on Twitter on Aug. 27 that it had received reports that some regional businessmen or chambers of commerce planned to participate in the fair.
"We reiterate our warning that anyone doing business (with the) Assad regime or its associates is exposing themselves to the possibility of US sanctions," it said.
"We repeat that it is unacceptable and inappropriate for businesses, individuals, and chambers of commerce from outside Syria to participate," it added.
A large UAE flag hung above the delegation stand where companies exhibited their goods and promotional material. The main sectors on display were concrete products and real estate.
"Our goal is to create a market in Syria and take part in big construction projects," said Mohamed Hamad Awad al-Karim, Business Development Manager at Dubai-based Al Shamsi, a supplier of ceramic products.
A representative of Arabtec declined to comment when approached by Reuters in Damascus and its head office did not respond to an emailed request.
The head of the UAE Federation of Chambers of Commerce who led the delegation to Damascus was unavailable for comment. In a statement, the fair's organisers said 26 UAE-based companies had stands at the fair.
A UAE trade delegation document with the logo of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, obtained by Reuters, listed at least 42 delegates.
Washington has been lobbying Gulf states including the UAE to hold off restoring ties with Syria, sources told Reuters earlier this year.
"I am not happy to see a delegation of Emirati businessmen in Damascus to take part in a conference organized by the butcher regime of Bashar, whose hand is stained with the blood of the Syrian people," Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla wrote on Twitter on Thursday.