Along with India and China, another state that has been abstaining from voting in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on resolutions critical of Russia over the Ukraine crisis is the UAE. What explains the UAE's voting, currently serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and till recently a close US in the Middle East?
The UAE did vote for the UN General Assembly resolution on Wednesday that “deplored in the strongest terms the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine” and demanded that Russia “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine. But the General Assembly resolutions are not binding and could also have been a trade-off for the UNSC passing an arms embargo on the Houthis; the UAE had abstained when the Security Council had held the procedural voting to hold the General Assembly emergency session.
Why the US Retreat From Middle East Mattered
In fact, just a day after Russia announced official recognition of the independence of Ukraine's breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, held a telephone call in which “Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan stressed the depth of friendship between the UAE and Russia and the two countries’ leadership, and highlighted the keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields for the higher good of their peoples.”
This is important because India has been deepening its relations with the UAE, and they may be converging in more ways than expected.
A Newsweek article – amongst the first to point this out – dwelled only on America's receding footprint in the Middle East, the diversification of the UAE's foreign policy and strategic partnerships and the simultaneous growth of China. This is indeed borne out by the fact that the UAE, after a long wait since when it signed the Abraham Accords – and in part conditioned by it – declined its interest in procuring the F35s from the USA. It has now confirmed that it has turned to the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation for the purchase of 12 L-15 Falcon military jets, at a time the US is trying to stitch up alliances to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
The UAE, however, has been deepening its relations with Russia, too, both as a result and a response to the US retreat from the Middle East and its pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
Threatened by Iran and its proxies in neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen – a threat that still persists as seen in the recent attacks on the UAE by Iran-backed Houthi militias – as well as by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the UAE turned to Russia, which helped consolidate Bashar Al Assad's rule in Syria, expelling the ISIL and other Islamist forces. It claimed that they were fighting a “common enemy”.
UAE's Cheque-Book Diplomacy With Russia
Russia also had leverage over Iran both in Syria and as one of the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal. There have been reports that UAE officials had privately pushed for then-President Donald Trump to strike a bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin for cooperation in Syria in return for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Since then, the UAE became the first Gulf country to reestablish relations with Bashar Assad's Syria, which had been thrown out of the Arab League at the start of the Syrian Civil War, and reopen its embassy in Damascus. More recently, in November 2021, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan visited Damascus, breaking the US consensus not to negotiate with Assad.
The UAE has also actively cooperated with Russia in Libya, where they both supported the Khalifa Haftar regime as against the UN-recognised government backed by Qatar and Turkey. The Russian mercenary Wagner Group, which has been active there, is reported to have been funded by Abu Dhabi. The threat of Turkey, a strategic rival of the UAE and whose ruling party is a strong supporter of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, an anathema for the Emirates, may have been another driver of Abu Dhabi seeking closer ties with Moscow.
For all these reasons and to allegedly wean Russia away from Iran, the UAE has also been engaging in cheque-book diplomacy with Russia.
Just in December, the UAE's Mubadala Holding Company made its single largest investment to the tune of $1 billion in Russia, acquiring 1.9 per cent of Sibur, Russia’s largest integrated petrochemical company. Its total investments amount to $3 billion in the Russian Federation – and there are others like ADNOC and DP World.
In 2021, the total trade turnover between the two countries was $3.7 billion, an increase of 77.64% from 2019, with the balance of trade being comfortably in favour of Russia.
Bilateral ties received a boost with Putin's visit to the UAE in 2019, where deals worth $1.4 billion were signed.
The 'OPEC Plus'
Defence ties between the two countries have also been increasing. According to Russia's Kommersant, the UAE's unpublicised defence procurement from Russia amounted to $401 million in 2021. The two have collaborated to manufacture the new Checkmate stealth fighter, the first single-engine fighter developed since the fall of the Soviet Union; it is said to be the Russian F-35. Even earlier, the UAE had been one of the first countries to evince interest in the joint Indo-Russian Brahmos missiles. According to SIPRI, the Middle East has been the fastest-growing market for arms sales in the past five years.
From hydrocarbons to defence, from food products to diamonds, UAE-Russia relations encompass wide-ranging cooperation. In 2016, the UAE supported Saudi Arabia's initiative to create with Russia's involvement the ‘OPEC Plus’. On 1 March, Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan discussed the OPEC+ oil deal and pledged to continue coordination on global energy markets, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The Real Test For Countries Like UAE
The US and the European Union (EU) want Gulf countries to increase energy supplies to stabilise rocketing oil prices and to fill the shortfall that could be created by the cessation of Russian energy supplies to Europe. But OPEC Plus refused yesterday to change its April schedule, causing another surge in oil prices.
This is the real test for countries like the UAE, which, like India, have been taking a non-partisan position on the Ukraine crisis but hint at covert support for Russia, even as they have been extending humanitarian aid to Ukraine and nudging both parties to the negotiating table.
Both India and the UAE, as close strategic partners, have much at stake in the conflict. They have close ties to both Russia and the US, are serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and their position on the crisis seems to be increasingly converging. They can thus synergise their efforts in ending the conflict before it escalates any further.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)