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  • Writer's pictureAndreas Krieg

With Friends like This: The UAE emerges as key enabler of Putin’s Russia

Andreas Krieg & Matthew Hedges

A picture says more than a thousand words: UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed laughing with his Russian counterpart Lavrov speaks volumes about the intimate geo-strategic and ideological relationship between Abu Dhabi and Moscow.

In response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, NATO and EU allies have been quick to respond with a range of punitive sanctions against Moscow, which aim to sever the Kremlin’s access to financial markets and its global support networks. Yet, while these western sanctions do hurt, it fails to account for the Kremlin’s extensive influence and support networks in the East. Among the most potent enablers of Russia’s authoritarian agenda has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose financial hub Dubai has become somewhat of a Club Med for authoritarians and their money. ]

Over the past decade, Abu Dhabi has developed into one of Moscow’s most important strategic partners, not just in the Middle East. Russian and Emirati influence and information networks share their burden mobilizing counterrevolutionaries in the Arab world, as well as illiberal liberals and the alt-right in the West. The strongmen, the siloviki, on whose shoulders Putin’s regime has been built, have used the Emirates as a haven for their money laundering activities. And Emirati sovereign wealth funds have invested billions into Russian strategic assets in the energy, petrochemical, logistics and defence sector.

It is therefore not surprising that the UAE’s support for Russia has remained unconditional despite the Kremlin’s aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine. As the liberal world universally condemns Russia’s actions, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed arrived for talks in Moscow to enhance bilateral cooperation, with few mentions of the War in Ukraine. In October 2021 UAE’s Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash spoke of a ‘looming Cold War’ in which Abu Dhabi did not want to take sides – yet, by abstaining from the UN Security Council condemnation of Russian aggression two weeks ago, Abu Dhabi did take a side.

A deep ideological bond

The reason is that beyond common geo-strategic and economic interests, Russia and the UAE share a deep ideological bond over the fear of civil-societal mobilization and democratic transition. Russia’s phobia of the colour revolutions that swept pro-Russian authoritarians off their feet, is echoed in Abu Dhabi, which has become the leading counterrevolutionary force in the Arab world post-Arab Spring.

Russia’s subversive information and influence operations in Eastern and Central Europe aimed at undermining democratic processes have been replicated by the UAE in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In Egypt, Abu Dhabi was instrumental in mobilizing a counterrevolution around the Tamarod movement, creating a pretext for strongman Sisi to stage a coup in 2013. In Libya, the UAE appears to have financed Russia’s shadowy mercenary force Wagner Group, which was meant to help Emirati-sponsored strongman Haftar to topple the UN-backed government in Tripoli. In Syria, Abu Dhabi has spearheaded a strategy of normalization with Assad, politically undermining the US Caesar Sanctions against a Kremlin-backed authoritarian regime.

Joint meddling in the West

But the united front between Russia and the UAE for authoritarian stability does not stop there. Moscow’s and Abu Dhabi’s influence and information networks jointly exploit alt and far-right fears of migration and Islam in the West as well. The UAE provided loans to France’s far-right party National Front in 2014 who also received financial support from Russia. Emirati lobbying in Brussels targets predominately the Eurosceptic far-right who have a natural affinity with Russia which the Kremlin cultivates in parallel.

The most consequential pooling of information power between Moscow and Abu Dhabi might have been the joint courting of US President-elect Trump in 2016 and 2017. Russian meddling in the US presidential election aside, the UAE had tried to setup a backchannel between the incoming Trump administration and Russia during a now infamous meeting on the Seychelles. The personal involvement of UAE strongman Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) subjected the quasi-leader of the Emirates to the Mueller investigation making him a bit of a pariah who has since avoided entering the United States.

Towards an alternative authoritarian order

As western partners of the Emirates are desperately trying to stabilize the crumbling liberal order amid the Russian onslaught on Ukraine, Abu Dhabi is likely going to further undermine it. The assertive small state has been punching above its weight over the past decade also empowered by the rising East, with Russia and China both seeing the UAE as the key partner in a looming Cold War. Ideologically, the neo-authoritarians of the East are the more likely partner for Abu Dhabi as their support comes with few strings attached and avoid any liberal conditionality.

The UAE have become a key hub to bypass western sanctions. Despite an extremely tight sanctions regime against Iran, UAE-based companies make money helping Iran to smuggle oil onto the international market. After the United States imposed sanctions on Venezuela, UAE-based firms helped the Latin American country to smuggle oil out. In Syria, the UAE have actively lobbied for US sanctions against the Assad regime to be lifted as they obstructed normalization.

Dubai as the Club Med for Putin's Oligarchs

Putin’s inner circle has woven a complex global network of companies and shell firms that provide influence and access. Some of these networks have already exploited the UAE’s opportunities as a money laundering hub. Russian oligarchs and Putin allies own 76 multi-million-dollar properties in the UAE. Some of them already arrived in Dubai via private jet or yacht as the western sanction’s regime kicked in.

Putin’s close confidant in investment and finance matters, Kirill Dmitriev, has close personal ties to MbZ as the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), headed by Dmitriev, has been investing alongside Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala investment fund. Considering that current western sanctions against Russia leave major loopholes to be exploited, it would not be surprising if the UAE provided a helping hand to Putin’s networks to access financial markets and investments.

The war in Ukraine is another attempt by the Kremlin to remake the post-Cold War order by pushing back against a liberal, western order in crisis. This is not just a war over the future of Europe’s security architecture, but a war over grand strategic narratives and values pitting the liberal, western world against 21st century authoritarianism rising in the East. This new cold war has just turned hot revealing how the multipolar world of today provides western partners and adversaries with choices that are likely being made based on appeal and soft power.

The UAE masquerading as a western partner increasingly puts its eggs into the eastern basket as the narratives of the new authoritarian order represented by Russia and China seem more appealing to a country that has led the counterrevolution in the Arab world and is ready to now expand its networks elsewhere.

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