During the first year of the war in Ukraine, the UAE pursued a policy of strategic non-alignment. Like its Western partners, the UAE supported a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) motion on 2 March 2022 that urged Russia to end the war, and later condemned the Russian annexation of four Ukrainian regions in an 12 October 2022 UNGA vote. However, the UAE broke with the West’s stance when it abstained from an 7 April motion to suspend Russian membership in the UN Human Rights Council, and has also resisted US pressure to impose sanctions on Russia.
The UAE’s delicate balancing act in Ukraine reflects its commitment to a multipolar foreign policy and to positioning itself as an indispensable mediator in the conflict. These objectives are long-standing lynchpins of UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s foreign policy vision. Under His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s leadership, the UAE has managed close ties with the US, EU, Russia, and China, while also mediating conflicts ranging from the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to the frozen conflict between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. The UAE’s parallel-track engagement with Russia and Ukraine, its efforts to mitigate the economic repercussions of the war, and its pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the conflict continue to develop this foreign policy approach.
Between Russia and Ukraine
Senior US officials such as Brian Nelson, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, have implored their Emirati counterparts to isolate Russia. However, the UAE has continued to engage with Moscow during the war in Ukraine. The UAE’s resilient partnership with Russia reflects years of steady improvement in bilateral relations, including a 2018 strategic partnership agreement, collaboration on oil price stability through the OPEC+ framework, and security cooperation in Syria and Libya.
Since the Ukraine invasion began, Russia-UAE economic cooperation has continued to expand. The UAE and Russia have reaffirmed OPEC+ production targets despite the West’s imposition of a $60 USD price cap on Russian oil. During the first nine months of 2022, non-oil trade between Russia and the UAE increased by 57% to $5.5 billion. The UAE has consolidated its standing as the principal site of Russian investment in the Arab world. Dubai has experienced an influx of Russian real estate purchases and has become a more appealing destination for Russian start-ups and subsidiaries. During the first quarter of 2022, real estate purchases in Dubai by Russian nationals increased by 67%. Meanwhile, the UAE implemented reforms such as visa liberalization and full ownership provisions for foreigners, which allowed Russians to establish as many as 4,000 new businesses in the UAE market. This initial influx of investment was followed by a second wave in fall 2022, as young Russian men fleeing conscription left to establish businesses in Dubai.
The UAE’s financial system has adapted to accommodate these trends. Although Dubai’s Mashreq Bank stopped lending to Russian banks and reconsidered its engagement with the Russian market in early March 2022, Emirati financial institutions swiftly resumed business as usual with Russia. On 13 July, Ahmed al-Ketbi, head of the UAE Embassy’s economic department in Moscow, revealed high-level discussions about the use of Russian Mir credit cards in the UAE. Russia hopes that these trends will expand into the security arena. During the IDEX 2023 defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, Russia and the UAE discussed military-technical cooperation. Agencies such as Kalashnikov and Rosoboronexport advertised combat-tested rifles, missiles, and drones at IDEX 2023, but the inefficacy of Russian military technology in Ukraine and the risk of secondary sanctions could hamper major arms deals.
Despite maintaining a strategic partnership with Russia, the UAE could also still pursue closer relations with Ukraine. The UAE has regularly dispatched humanitarian aid to the latter in order to support refugee resettlement in Poland and help civilians weather the impact of Russian strikes on infrastructure. Most significantly, the UAE pledged $100 million USD in aid to Ukraine, following talks between His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Zelensky on 17 October 2022. On 5 December, the UAE and Ukraine held talks on a bilateral trade deal. This would be Abu Dhabi’s first such agreement with a European state.
Throughout the war in Ukraine, the UAE has consistently voiced support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed has leveraged his cordial relationship with Putin to push for a ceasefire. On 10 October 2022, UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed visited Russia for the first time in his presidency to pursue this goal. In stark contrast to Turkey’s public diplomacy initiatives, such as the Black Sea grain export deal and Istanbul peace talks, the UAE has relied on shadow diplomacy and dialogue facilitation. In November 2022, the UAE hosted clandestine talks between Russia and Ukraine to discuss prisoner-of-war exchanges and secure international markets’ access to Russian ammonia. The 8 December prisoner exchange involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout and WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner also took place in Abu Dhabi.
Going forward, the UAE could expand its diplomatic role in the war in Ukraine. The UAE is in a unique position to further conflict de-escalation as a result of long-standing relations between Emirati officials and Putin-aligned war hawks such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. Elena Suponina, a prominent Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) expert, has argued that the UAE is ready to assume an intermediary role between Russia and the West in Ukraine. The UAE could also support Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s diplomatic efforts, which have already resulted in a prisoner swap involving pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk and Azov Regiment fighters. Moreover, the UAE could strengthen the Black Sea grain export deal by signing a free trade agreement with Ukraine, which would facilitate the passage of agricultural exports to the MENA region.
In the wake of the first anniversary of the war, the UAE has emerged as a potential mediator in the Russian-Ukraine conflict as a result of its multipolar foreign policy approach and its desire to mitigate the secondary impacts of the war, such as food insecurity and volatile energy prices. The UAE will have further diplomatic opportunities in the months ahead, given Russian military action in Donetsk and the challenges that Ukraine faces in launching a multi-directional counter-offensive.