Understanding Russia and the UAE’s Special Partnership

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

by Giorgio Cafiero

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on October 15 with a delegation of Russian ministers, trade representatives, and officials. Putin’s trip to the Emirates—his first since 2007—was important for rapidly expanding Russian-UAE ties, which have grown in many areas such as investment, trade, culture, outer space, tourism, and security, in recent years. The strategic partnership that the two countries signed in June 2018 was a watershed in bilateral affairs, underscoring the extent to which both Moscow and Abu Dhabi value their deepening relationship. Now the two countries are taking this partnership to new heights.

While the Russian president and his delegation were in the Emirati capital, he held talks with the UAE’s de facto ruler and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, who met Putin at the airport upon his arrival from Saudi Arabia. While speaking to Emirati officials Putin gave them his word that they “will not be disappointed” with the more than USD 1.3 billion in Russian-UAE investment deals signed during his visit.

For Russia, no Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-state is as important in terms of trade as the UAE. As Putin explained to the UAE’s state-owned media: “Of all the Gulf countries, we [Russia and the UAE] have the highest level of trade, USD 1.7 billion, but of course, this is not enough. We are all well aware of that and we are working with the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund [Mubadala] where the joint platform is valued at nearly USD 7 billion.”

Indeed, Russia and the UAE have a vibrant and long-standing economic relationship:

The U.A.E. and Russia have also built a robust economic relationship. Russian exports to the Emirates are mainly commodities, such as precious metals and stones, steel, as well as ferrous metal products, machinery, equipment, vehicles, chemicals, food, wood, paper, and cardboard. Since the mid-2000s, Russian state-owned giants and private firms have done business in the Emirates and compete for some of the country’s project tenders. For Russia, the U.A.E. represents an attractive business hub for Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East… Meanwhile, the Gulf state has invested in Russia’s gas, oil, real estate, infrastructure, and logistics sectors, and seeks to boost its presence in Russia’s food production sector. Additionally, these two countries share natural resource extraction and are emerging trade centers in diamonds.

Religion and Culture

The UAE and Russia are bonded by religion and culture. For example, the 20,000 capacity Russian Orthodox Church built in Sharjah illustrates the Russians’ and Emiratis’ mutual respect for the others’ religious roots. To that point, there is a view in the UAE—held by Abu Dhabi’s former ambassador to Moscow, Omar Ghobash, that Russia is a great Christian civilization. The Grozny conference of 2016 was an important event in terms of Emirati and Russian efforts to provide visions for the future of Islam based on the rejection of interpretations of the faith considered by both governments to be extremist amid an “intra-Sunni geopolitical rivalry,” as Kristin Smith Diwan identified it.

Emirati-Russian exchanges in arts, music, and dance have also emerged as increasingly important aspects of bilateral affairs. Theodore Karasik recently wrote that “some of Russia’s finest art and musical traditions are now part of the UAE’s art scene,” adding that “the momentum of the corridor between Russia and the UAE represents a bridge between two civilisations and establishes a new model for Russian-Middle Eastern relations.”

Geopolitical and Security Dimensions

Like virtually all other Arab capitals, Abu Dhabi views Russia’s role in the Middle East’s security architecture as increasingly important. Common concerns and overlapping interests are leading to growing alignment between the Russians and Emiratis. Two conflicts in the region that have drawn Moscow and Abu Dhabi closer are Yemen and Syria.

In Yemen, Moscow’s policy has been “strategic non-alignment” ever since the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition entered the fray in March 2015. Yet this year, Russia and the UAE have aligned more closely against the backdrop of growing ties between the Kremlin and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). Russia’s diplomatic engagement with the STC has made Moscow basically the only other capital in the world that shares, to some degree, the UAE’s vision for southern Yemen and the sensitive, decades-old issue of secession that continues to fuel disagreements between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which are currently being addressed at ongoing talks in Jeddah. Furthermore, as Samuel Ramani explained, Russian private military companies—which are reportedly present in southern Yemen—could further pave the way for cooperation between Moscow and Abu Dhabi as the situation in Aden remains extremely volatile. 

History matters significantly with respect to the way Russia views southern Yemen. Aden, an area of the Middle East where Moscow asserted strong influence during the Cold War, is important to the Kremlin at a time in which Putin and those in his inner circle seek to restore influence that Moscow lost when the USSR imploded. Down the road, Russian leaders may look to install a naval base in Aden, particularly as the Red Sea becomes increasingly militarized by global and regional powers. The legacy of the Soviet-aligned People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the Arabian Peninsula’s most progressive and only Marxist regime, explains existing special bonds between southern Yemenis of a certain generation and their Russian counterparts. Although Russia’s government will probably not overtly back independence for southern Yemen, “Moscow could view a facilitation of the STC’s entrance into UN-brokered peace negotiations as a way to curry the UAE’s favor, without jeopardizing its broader regional balancing strategy” as Ramani put it.

In terms of Syria, the crisis never fueled substantial friction in Russia’s relationship with the UAE as it did with others in the GCC—chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar—in the conflict’s earlier stages. Unlike Riyadh and Doha, which joined Ankara in terms of heavily backing Syrian rebel factions, Abu Dhabi always saw the prospects of Bashar al-Assad falling to Islamist/Salafist forces as a troubling scenario, notwithstanding the UAE’s displeasure with the Syrian regime’s close alignment with Tehran. That Abu Dhabi restored diplomatic relations with Assad’s government in December was further confirmation of the UAE’s move closer to Russia (and further away from the West) regarding the Syrian crisis.

As Syria’s government continues re-integrating diplomatically into the Arab world—and this movement will likely accelerate as a consequence of Turkey’s military move into northern Syria—there will be more synergy between Abu Dhabi and Moscow on the Syria file. Undoubtedly, Washington has put pressure on the UAE to not move faster toward re-establishing stronger economic, political, diplomatic, and security ties with Assad’s government, yet Moscow hopes that Abu Dhabi will become even more of a partner in Syria—particularly in the domain of reconstruction.

As Ramani noted, Russian media platforms praised businessmen from the UAE who attended a trade fair in the Syria capital in late August despite Washington’s warnings to keep out of Damascus. Russia could reward the UAE for demonstrating its willingness to further break from Washington vis-à-vis Syria by inviting Abu Dhabi to join the Astana talks, assuming that peace process survives the ongoing chaotic fallout from President Donald Trump’s decision to green light the Turkish military’s move into Syria this month.

In Libya too, the Russians have made their influence felt, albeit not nearly as forcefully as in Syria. Moscow has sought to stake out a “neutral” position to afford the Kremlin an opportunity to play a mediating role. Thus, Moscow’s foreign policy in Libya has been closer to the “strategic non-alignment” approach it’s taken in Yemen than to its full-scale support for a specific side as in Syria. Nonetheless, it appears that the Kremlin has gradually shifted more in the direction of supporting the Tobruk-based administration and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which are supported by the UAE—making Libya another example of a growing alignment between Abu Dhabi and Moscow.

Putin Capitalizes on U.S. Blunders

Following the U.S. “retreat” from northern Syria and the contradictory statements from Trump in relation to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, there is even greater unease among officials in Abu Dhabi regarding their reliance on a U.S. security umbrella. The Trump administration’s measured response to recent alleged Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf has left the Emiratis more convinced that Trump fails to back up rhetoric with action on Iran-related issues. Putin has used this growing mistrust between the Trump administration and U.S. allies in the Middle East to demonstrate that Russia is a state that truly stands by its allies. 

As Malik Dahlan argued, “The Russians think of themselves as the natural player in the grand design of the geopolitics of the region.” Abu Dhabi is beginning to share this view of Moscow and its agenda in the Islamic world. At a time in which Abu Dhabi is making use of its diplomatic levers to modestly engage Iran after lobbying the Trump administration to apply “maximum pressure” on Tehran, the Russian president’s visits to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were significant. The former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, wrote: “Putin… views Russia’s role increasingly as a mediator in the region… Russia ‘will not play favorites’ between the GCC states and Tehran – a clear signal to the Gulf states that Russia is ready to balance its relations between the GCC and Tehran.” 

Putin’s visit to Abu Dhabi was illustrative of how the UAE and Russia are becoming more important to each other. Yet the growth of this bilateral relationship must also be seen in a wider context of an increasingly multipolar world in which the UAE is turning not only to Russia, but also to China and India to better serve the Gulf state’s economic and security interests. Within this context, as Western countries continue to lose influence in the Middle East, Moscow will cultivate deeper ties with the UAE along with other GCC states and Iran to strengthen Russia’s regional clout.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.