Ever since launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept overseas trips to a minimum and seldom ventured beyond the post-Soviet space for tête-à-têtes with his opposite numbers. If anything, the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against him over ordering the abduction of Ukrainian children merely acts as an additional deterrent when it comes to travelling outside Russia.
Putin was forced to skip the 15th Annual BRICS Conference held in South Africa last August and even missed out on the G20 Summit hosted by India shortly thereafter for unspecified reasons. Yet, his decision to pay a working visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 6 speaks volumes about Moscow’s indebtedness to both like-minded, energy-rich regimes.
With Kyiv on tenterhooks and hard-pressed to ward off further Russian aggression amid growing financial constraints, the Kremlin’s Arab benefactors have helped ensure that Russia’s armed forces are adequately resourced to continue playing the long game and wreaking havoc in Ukraine.
Warm Emirati reception to Russia’s elites
The grandiose 21-gun salute and tricolor fly-past that Putin was afforded upon his arrival at Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Watan Palace goes to show that Russo-Emirati ties are, by no means, a one-way street. This is despite the fact the strategic partnership does, at times, appear heavily skewed in Russia’s favor.
Wealthy Muscovites shunned by most legacy Western capitals nowadays derive a sense of psychological comfort from being able to stash away their ill-gotten gains, dock their yachts and set up shell companies in business-friendly Dubai. The flamboyant city-state not only caters seamlessly to the whims and fancies of sanctioned oligarchs. It has also handed up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs, as well as social media influencers from Russia, a new lease on life by allowing them to establish a base there without any bureaucracy or red tape.
Moreover, the emphasis local authorities place on maintaining social order in the sheikhdom means that the Russian diaspora need not worry about facing any kind of animus or open hostility from the overwhelmingly apolitical general public. Rather, its expat-driven economy and diverse tapestry of nationalities has given rise to a de facto pecking order wherein Russians occupy a fairly high status and are considered, for the most part, a net positive to society.
As far as symbolism goes, frequenting the UAE lays bare the inefficacy of Western-led attempts to isolate Putin on the world stage while rank and file Russian citizens were reminded that there are parts of the Global South still easily accessible to them.
In his meeting with Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the self-styled tsar heralded both countries’ progress on the cultural and people-to-people front. Besides in excess of 900,000 Russian tourists visiting the UAE this year alone, MBZ greet-lit the construction of a new Orthodox church on government-owned land and oversaw the establishment of Abu Dhabi’s first Russian school in 2022 – not to mention the 103% year-on-year uptick in investments in Russia’s non-oil sector that came to pass under his watch.
The second leg of Putin’s journey was equally crucial, despite commercial engagement between Russia and Saudi Arabia remaining comparatively incipient. For starters, both OPEC+ heavyweights have a vested interest in extending supply cuts and exerting upward pressure on crude prices to organically bankroll their cross-border military adventurism.
At the same time, the ongoing situation in Gaza was a cue for Moscow to pit the Arab League against the US and its European satellites. Needless to say, Russia’s overtly pro-Palestine stance following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks has not gone unnoticed in West Asia. Indeed, the UAE seems to be having major reservations about the US-brokered Abraham Accords it hastily signed onto back in 2020.
Apart from tabling a humanitarian ceasefire at the UN Security Council that was shot down by the Americans a fortnight ago and refusing to take part in Operation Prosperity Guardian, the UAE’s national flagship carrier Emirates recently prolonged its suspension of all flights to and from Israel. The Saudis, meanwhile, have played their cards more wisely vis-à-vis normalization talks and emerged somewhat uncompromising with respect to their maximalist demands for joining the so-called “circle of peace.”
At the same time, Putin has taken heed of shifting power dynamics within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MbS) quest to cut fellow member states that do not toe the line down to size. This includes the UAE, with whom Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in cutthroat, zero-sum competition to make a success of its Vision 2030. It is worth recalling that MbS even threatened to place Abu Dhabi under a Qatar-style blockade over petty internal disagreements and vowed to penalize multinational corporations that do not relocate their regional headquarters to Riyadh by 2024.
Putin’s dependence on the status quo
Much like Belarus has become entirely beholden to Russia of late, the UAE cannot make bold foreign policy moves without the blessing of their Saudi overlords. Any disruption to the status quo would spell disaster for Putin and his inner circle cronies who now depend almost exclusively on Dubai’s opaque financial infrastructure to run rings around and make a mockery of sanctions enforced by the collective West.
There are legitimate concerns among Russia’s ruling elite that they could end up being cold-shouldered by an increasingly paranoid MbS as the war in Gaza spirals out of control and permeates to Saudi Arabia’s backyard. Yemen’s Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels are likely to be the main instigators of such an eventuality, not least because they have doubled down on cruise missile strikes and drone attacks in and around the Red Sea during the course of the past few weeks.
These worrisome developments partly explain why Iran’s head of state Ebrahim Raisi was invited to the Kremlin for bilateral discussions immediately after Putin’s return from the Persian Gulf. Fissures in its alliance with Tehran are fast coming to light as Moscow makes no bones about the GCC petrostates taking precedence over that of the Islamic Republic’s value proposition.
Throwing their weight behind the UAE at the sixth Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in Morocco over territorial claims to three Iranian-occupied islands, is emblematic of the Russian diplomatic apparatus’ inability to balance relations between Iran and its hawkish Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, should push come to shove in the Arabian Peninsula and leave Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with little choice but to re-orient themselves towards Washington for maritime security guarantees, the former KGB agent may need to revisit his all-in Middle East bet.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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