The UAE has been actively diversifying its relationships around the world and has emerged as arguably the leading partner of the former Soviet states. Kazakh President Tokayev’s visit to the UAE (January 16th-19th), where he met with UAE leaders and took part in Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week, may strengthen this hypothesis. Why has this relationship strengthened so significantly in recent years, and what does it say about the UAE’s role in global power dynamics?
The UAE’s economy remains the second largest in the Arab world, thus providing the Emirates a key power resource to gain influence and build alliances. As the result of the meeting between President Tokayev and the UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on January 17th in Abu Dhabi, nine documents were signed in the fields of economics, investment, health, science, and education. For example, the two leaders issued a joint declaration on strategic investment projects; an agreement in principle between Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy, the Kazakhstan Investment Development Fund, and Masdar; a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Kazakh Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development and the UAE’s Chief Civil Aviation Authority; an MOU between Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development and Abu Dhabi Ports; an MOU between the Kazakh Ministry of Healthcare and the UAE; and an agreement between the Archives of the President of Kazakhstan and the National Library and Archives of the UAE.
In other words, the most interesting developments in relations are linked to the UAE’s power, which extends to renewable energy, food security and agriculture, construction, mining, logistics, and development. Economic relations remain the strongest factor, with bilateral trade between the two countries amounting to $600 million in 2022. As President Tokayev noted: "We have established and enjoyed exemplary relations between our states for over 30 years….Your great country has invested some $3 billion in Kazakhstan, while Kazakhstan has already invested over a billion dollars in the Emirates. Among the interesting dynamics are growing collaborations in Islamic finance."
In addition to key economic links, another important trend within these relations is a reshuffling of traditional alignments, specifically attempts to benefit from the current competition of the great European powers over Ukraine. While Kazakhstan lies within the traditional Russian sphere of interest, one analysis states that "shocked by the Ukraine war, Russia’s neighbor Kazakhstan looks west." This statement may be an exaggeration, but the growing national identity of Kazakhs and the introduction of visa restrictions ending unlimited stay for Russians may signal the country’s attempts to build policies based on their own national interests. This effort is dominated by balancing relations between Russia and the West, which has naturally become an increasingly complex proposition.
The UAE’s position on the Ukraine war can also be characterized by its national interests. For example, the UAE sent $100 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as further assistance in the form of planes carrying aid to support Ukrainian refugees in Moldova and Poland. It also offers aid to Poland and Bulgaria for Ukrainians sheltering in these countries. At the same time, the decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their OPEC allies to cut oil production in October 2022, shows the importance of their national policy agenda.
Both the UAE and Kazakhstan are responding to their changing geopolitical environments and are adapting their policies based on their national interests and capacities, while aiming to play proactive roles on global platforms. For example, the leaders of both countries emphasized the significance of developing their role at the United Nations in terms of global security and sustainability. Tokayev welcomed the UAE’s effective role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2022-2023, while His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed thanked Kazakhstan for supporting its bid to host the 13th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in February 2024. Perhaps most interestingly, he also expressed gratitude for Kazakhstan’s support for the UAE’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner.
In other words, in addition to the leading platform of the UN, the UAE aims to diversify relations with other blocs, such as the SCO power bloc in Eurasia, which covers policy, international security, economy, and defense, and whose members include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
In the Eurasian sphere, Kazakhstan aims to diversify its partnerships, as illustrated by Tokayev’s comments at the Kazakhstan-UAE Investment Roundtable: "Central Asia is a large and vibrant region with high growth rates and a great future. We are planning to construct multiple cross-border trade and logistics centers to strengthen our trade and connectivity in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is also a large country that needs quality roads. Together with our neighbours and the European Union, we are also working to establish a ‘Digital Transport Corridor.’…We believe that the Emirati companies can definitely benefit from this growth and connectivity. That is why I fully support our cooperation with Abu Dhabi Ports to establish a maritime and port infrastructure in my country." During Tokayev’s visit, AD Ports Group signed a strategic agreement with KazMunayGas and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development. The joint venture is expected to offer offshore services for energy companies in the Caspian Sea, another strategic growth location for the UAE.
Both countries are trying to create new partnership spheres by developing links with all the major players, but fundamentally guided by their national interests. For Kazakhstan, these collaborations offer the opportunity to develop its economy, which has also been hit by the Western sanctions against Russia, as these economies are historically strongly interconnected. For the UAE, with its strong power resource of wealth, such partnerships open a window of opportunity to enlarge their partnerships with the rest of the world, while remaining agile in the face of transformations in the geopolitical arena. With what looks increasingly like a long war in Europe, global political power may shift in the long run towards the Gulf. They have already proven themselves to be regional leaders, so why not on the globe stage? While others are busy dealing with confrontations, the UAE has seized opportunities to strengthen its relations with the rest of the world, and the post-Soviet space is one of the most interesting and receptive areas for this evolving statecraft.