Up until recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was not one of Russia’s closest partners. Since diplomatic relations were established in 1971, the two countries have maintained friendly relations and have had a modest degree of partnership, but there was no clear reason for the countries to pursue significantly close relations. Nevertheless, once another period of instability hit the Middle East, it turned out that the Russian Federation and the UAE share quite a lot of similar views when it comes to security issues.
In 2011, civil war broke out in the Syrian Arab Republic, which was a continuation of the chain of events that took hold of many Arab countries at the time which became known as the Arab Spring. A number of organizations, some of which are considered extremist and terrorist groups, rebelled against the contemporary Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad. It is believed that some of these organizations were supported and sponsored by the United States, which also assumed an active role in the fighting in Syria. The US referred to its number-one enemy as ISIS, ISIL Daesh, or Daish (outlawed in Russia), which is the terrorist organization that is hostile towards the majority of the other groups fighting in the conflict. ISIS took advantage of the disorder and seized a large part of Syrian territory. However, in addition to the fight against ISIS, American troops also began to combat the Bashar al-Assad regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russia supported the incumbent Syrian leader, which is why US military actions have further exasperated Russian-United States relations. In September 2015, Russia also took military action in Syria alongside government troops in the fight against ISIS and other groups.
Middle East countries have been forced to endure the presence of American troops in their region for many years, so they were greatly concerned by the arrival of another new foreign military force in the conflict, Russia, and expected that a struggle would break out between the two superpowers for spheres of influence in Syria, in which case local states would have to take sides. Then the leadership of the UAE and Saudi Arabia (which is considered a long-time partner of the United States) expressed their disapproval of the Russian military’s actions in Syria. However, in October 2015, a meeting was held in Sochi (Russia) between Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Mohammed Al Nahyan, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense Muhammad Ibn Salman al-Saud and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian President explained Russia’s position on Syria to its foreign partners and assured them that the Russian military’s main objective is the fight against international terrorism. The President of the Russian Federation and representatives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia also discussed the prospects for their countries to engage in economic partnerships under these new conditions. Following this meeting, relations between Russia and the UAE began to take off. The two sides started paying each other regular high-level visits.
Thus, in April 2016, a delegation of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Russian parliament) headed by its Chairperson Valentina Matvienko visited the UAE. In June 2016, the Chairperson of the UAE Federal National Council Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi returned the gesture with a visit to Moscow. The Head of the Emirati consultative council, the parliamentary body of the UAE, met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as well as other high-ranking Russian officials. Dr. Al Qubaisi told the media that she could see that relations between the UAE and Russia are developing dynamically in the economic, political and cultural spheres. According to the Emirati politician: “Russian and Emirati citizens have very warm feelings toward each other,” which reflects relations between the leaders of the two countries–Vladimir Putin and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. She also noted that one of the main issues where the Russian Federation and the UAE cooperate is in the fight against international terrorism, and thanked the Russian side for its contribution to this fight. Al Qubaisi particularly praised the work of Russian security ministries, as well as Russian representatives in the UN Security Council and at the Geneva II Conference for a peaceful settlement in Syria. According to Al Qubaisi, this route will help strengthen peace not only in the Middle East, but all over the world. Thus, the UAE has expressed its official support for Russia’s policy in the Middle East, which has made it possible to consider the Russian Federation becoming a key partner in the region.
Relations between Russia and the United Arab Emirates are continuing to develop. Strengthening their defense partnership is a natural progression of their cooperation in the area of security. Thus, in February 2017, Russia and the UAE signed a deal for the joint development of a fifth-generation fighter jet–a sign of the great degree of confidence that exists between the two countries in the area of defense–which took place at the IDEX international exhibition of arms and military equipment, held in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi every 2 years, where the Russian Federation has always participated.
Partnership in the tourism sector is also showing good growth. The UAE has long been a popular destination for tourists from all over the world, including Russia. According to the data from the beginning of 2017, the UAE was visited by an average of about 250,000 Russians each year. In February 2017, the UAE has simplified its visa requirements for Russian citizens: Russian guests are now able to conveniently receive a free visa in the airport on arrival in the UAE. As a result, in 2017, the number of tourists traveling from Russia to the UAE increased by 50%, soaring to 750,000 people.
In July 2018, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement granting visa-free entry to Russian and Emirati citizens to both countries for a period of up to 90 days. The agreement came into effect in February 2019. It is expected that this will not only lead to an even greater increase in the number of Russians traveling to the UAE, but there will also be an increase in tourists coming from the UAE to Russia. According to the Russian Consul General in Dubai Oleg Fomin, the UAE is the first Arab country with which Russia has reached such a great level of trust.
In March 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to the Gulf states, visiting Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Speaking at a press conference in the UAE, Sergey Lavrov highlighted the successful development of Russian-Emirati partnership across all areas, including security, military technology and tourism, as well as growth which has been seen in trade and bilateral investment. According to the Russian Foreign Minister, the two countries are preparing to work together on large and expensive projects related to hydrocarbon, nuclear energy, and space exploration.
By observing how relations between Russia and the UAE are developing, we can conclude that the UAE views Russia as its partner and ally. The arrival of Russian troops in Syria which was mentioned earlier has naturally been a cause for concern across all Middle Eastern states. However, having seen the reality of the work being done by the Russian Federation for order and security to be restored in the region, the UAE has realized that unlike the West, Russia sees order and security in the form of preservation of existing regimes and the suppression of conflicts instead of their exacerbation. The UAE certainly is not the only state that holds this position, and it is likely that Russia’s partners in the Middle East are set to grow in number.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.