Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Abu Dhabi on October 15, for the first time in twelve years, marking significant developments in Moscow’s relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Putin’s visit forged greater bilateral ties with the UAE, including trade and economic links, signing deals worth $1.4 billion. Cultural and academic ties were also enhanced, with talks on expanding partnership in artificial intelligence development, energy cooperation and telecom, and Emirati purchases of  Russian aircraft and helicopters. While all this secures relations between the two states, their thriving relations will translate into further regional cooperation, which both leaders are keen to consolidate.

During the meeting, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed praised “the importance and the scope of strategic relations between the United Arab Emirates and the Russian Federation.”

Meanwhile, Putin admitted their mutual regional interests: “we are expanding ties in the trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian fields and we are maintaining close coordination on major global and regional affairs, primarily regarding Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the situation in the Gulf.”

Putin’s preceding visit to Riyadh understandably attracted more attention. After all, Saudi Arabia often attracts a greater spotlight as a regional actor, largely due to its openly controversial domestic and foreign policies. Yet Moscow’s ties with Abu Dhabi, which has adopted a more covert but still expansionist foreign policy, could be far more consequential.

Russia and UAE are increasingly two of the most influential state actors operating in the region.

Russia and UAE are increasingly two of the most influential state actors operating in the region. Moscow under Putin has proactively pushed to enhance its superpower status, building strong ties with various regional actors, to secure its geopolitical dominance. Meanwhile the UAE, often operating under the smokescreen of its close ally Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, has gradually expanded its own regional clout. It now seeks to benefit from Moscow’s growing status in the region.

Both support authoritarian, anti-democratic, and anti-Islamist actors, under the guise of stability and “counter-terrorism.” Russia has traditionally operated pragmatically, initially communicating with all sides in a conflict while choosing the most useful one to support. To Abu Dhabi’s benefit, this often ends up being reactionary forces, which aids the UAE’s aims of preventing the proliferation of democratic and Islamist forces which could later threaten its own political status quo.

One growing commonality in their foreign policy, as Putin highlighted, is Syria. Russia initially intervened there in September 2015 to shore up its ally Bashar al Assad against rebel and extremist opposition factions. Russia’s air force targeting all opposition forces has enabled it to shore up its ally Assad in Syria’s civil war.

The UAE has recently sought to boost ties with the Assad regime, restoring its Damascus embassy in December 2018. Abu Dhabi views Assad as a stable bulwark against Islamism and democracy, particularly now that Russia has helped consolidate his regime in Syria. Though it may still oppose Iranian influence in Syria, its supposed warming of ties with Tehran, a close Russian ally, suggests it would pragmatically compromise to maximize its own regional influence.

Both have supported Khalifa Haftar in Libya, warlord and leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army. Opposing Libya’s peaceful democratic transition, Haftar in April launched a military campaign to seize the capital of Tripoli. His forces receive military and economic assistance from both Moscow and Abu Dhabi.  Russia however has also maintained ties with the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, while the UAE staunchly opposes it while favoring Haftar.  Yet due to their cooperation with Haftar, this could shore up Haftar’s influence in the country’s politics, even amid his somewhat faltering Tripoli campaign.

Following Sudan’s revolution this year, Russia on July 4 blocked a UN draft resolution condemning the Transitional Military Council’s massacre of protesters, which the UAE had facilitated given its vast support to the TNC. Russia has sought to maintain the status quo, to secure its position in Africa and gain from Sudan’s natural resources. This also serves the UAE’s counter-revolutionary objectives. Despite the TNC reaching a power-sharing deal with civilian factions, it could have future support from these two, which could impact Sudan’s revolutionary hopes.

Abu Dhabi’s courting of Russia represents its shift away from dependency on the United States, proportionate to a decline of Washington’s regional influence. Donald Trump’s administration has often been incoherent on the Middle East and lacks a consensus. Moreover, Trump’s sanctions on Iran, and his opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal, have increased regional tensions. This jeopardizes Abu Dhabi’s security, due to its geographical proximity along the Arabian Gulf and explains the UAE’s growing ties with Tehran.

The UAE still seeks to retain ties with Washington, however, as it still retains a considerable Middle Eastern presence. Emirati-linked figures like UAE ambassador to the US Youssef al-Outaibi and Lebanese-American businessman George Nader communicate directly with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Emirati narratives on regional affairs therefore directly influence Trump’s foreign policy stance.

Abu Dhabi is clearly retaining close links with Washington even as it plays a balancing act with Moscow.

Abu Dhabi is clearly retaining close links with Washington even as it plays a balancing act with Moscow.

A stronger alliance with Abu Dhabi is an attractive prospect for the Kremlin too, with the UAE presenting itself as a force for regional stability and secularism, appealing to Moscow’s ambitions.

Russia could gain from Abu Dhabi’s status as an economic powerhouse. To stabilize the Assad regime, Russia lacks the economic capabilities to reinvest in the country. Yet despite EU and US sanctions, Abu Dhabi possesses such financial benefits, and has been tipped to be more active in Syria’s reconstruction. In other words, a rich Arab state like the UAE supporting Assad provides Moscow greater ability to legitimize Assad’s government in Syria.

Another potential future area of cooperation is Yemen. Abu Dhabi’s role there became more apparent after it supported the southern separatist Aden coup on August 10, launching airstrikes on Yemeni government forces later that month to consolidate the secessionist take over. Abu Dhabi has backed the Southern Transitional Council (STC), largely to consolidate its control over key southern logistical locations, including the port of Aden, to boost its international maritime trade.

Amid speculation that Moscow may support the return of an independent southern secessionist state, which was aligned with the Soviet Union until its unification with the North in 1990, private Russian military companies are reportedly operating in southern Yemen. If Russia supports the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council’s independence wishes, it would also provide Moscow the opportunity to re-establish a military base along the Red Sea.

With a lack of international support for progressive change in the region, the authoritarian, anti-democratic leaders they support could have more success. As Abu Dhabi successfully courts more superpowers like Russia, boosting its international impunity, it can shift to a more overt foreign policy, as it has done in Yemen more recently.

Both Russia and the UAE have their own interests, seeking to benefit from their own proactive regional campaigns. Yet their crucial alliance significantly dwarfs any differences they may have and could usher in one of the most significant regional partnerships yet in the Middle East.