Understanding the Russian Exodus to Dubai following the Ukraine Invasion
Natalia Savelyeva

May 8, 2024
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent Western sanctions triggered a new wave of emigration from Russia and redirected tourist flows. The UAE, specifically Dubai, has become one of the most prominent locations for Russian emigrants, businesses and tourists. This report summarizes the pilot stage of a study aimed at understanding the specificities of post-invasion Russian emigration to Dubai, focusing on the well-off segment of the population. How is emigration to the UAE, specifically to Dubai, different from other destinations? Who are the people who choose Dubai over other options and why? How did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact the flow of Russians there?

Dubai proved to be a comfortable place for those who wanted or had to leave Russia for different reasons. The UAE maintained direct flights to and from Russia after the war started, with flights from Moscow to Dubai. Later, Pobeda, a low-cost subsidiary of Aeroflot, began flights to Dubai from Moscow in January 2023 and from Vladikavkaz and Volgograd in October of the same year. A round-trip flight from Moscow to Dubai cost about $120 in February 2023. Russians also do not need a visa to enter the country. They can open bank accounts if they have a local employment contract – or enough money and buy property in the UAE. Additionally, Dubai boasts a favorable tax system: there is no income tax, luxury tax or inheritance tax. English is a common language of communication, as expats constitute the majority of the population. Finally, the hostility toward Russians in Dubai is not palpable compared to other countries.

There are no official statistics from the government regarding the number of Russians who have obtained UAE residency. Over a million Russians visited the Emirates in 2022 — a 60% increase from the previous year. According to some sources, in 2023 some 2,024 million Russians and East Europeans visited the UAE, constituting 13% of all tourists. Some research suggests that Russians have now become the single largest nationality in Dubai, which is the main destination for emigration from Russia in the UAE. Recently, the real estate agency Betterhomes reported that in the second quarter of 2023, Russians were the third largest nationality among property buyers in Dubai.

It is fair to say that many individuals choosing Dubai as their place of residence possess significant wealth. A New York Timesarticle highlighted a noticeable shift in the destinations of private jets departing from Russia: whereas before the invasion only 3% of them were bound for the UAE, with the majority heading to European capitals, by May 2022 this figure had risen to 14%. Both sanctioned by the West and persecuted by Russia, rich Russian citizens also try to find a safe haven in the UAE. For example Andrey Melnichenko, Russia's eighth richest man in 2022 by Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion, ceded ownership of two of the world's largest coal and fertilizers companies to his wife and fled the UAE after being sanctioned.

The dynamics of the real estate market in Dubai offer some insights into the patterns of emigration. The entrance of Russians into the UAE real estate market in 2022 led to a boom in prices. However, by the third quarter of 2023, this wave had subsided. The weakening of the ruble, as well as the fact that everyone who wanted to buy property had already done so, contributed to this trend. Although in terms of real estate purchases Russian citizens rank behind nationals of India and the UK and just ahead of Egyptian and Emiratis, their average spending on property is nearly double that of other nationalities, at $1.1 million. Russians demonstrate a preference for villas over apartments and tend to seek new homes that are ready for immediate occupancy, rather than those that are off-plan or on the secondary market. Additionally, they often prefer to live in close proximity to fellow Russians.

The business relationship between Russia and the UAE was boosted by the war, as well. In 2021, the UAE's imports from Russia were valued at £3.7 billion, but within a year, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, direct trade surged, more than doubling to £8.2 billion. The UAE has become one of the top five destinations for Russian companies seeking to open franchises.

Methodology and Data

The preliminary results of this study are based on the analysis of 10 interviews with new residents of Dubai who moved there following Russia's attack on Ukraine in February 2022. The interviews were conducted in August 2023 and February 2024, both in person in Dubai and via Zoom. They included individuals in their 30s and early 40s of various occupations who had previously lived in different regions of Russia. All but two are married, often with children. The interviewees were recruited through snowballing – via direct recommendations and vouching from friends and colleagues – as well as through direct acquaintances on site. This approach impacted the sample in several ways. Firstly, it predominantly included people with antiwar views. Secondly, it fostered the necessary trust between the researcher and the interviewees. Many were hesitant to openly discuss their political opinions, attitudes toward the war and other sensitive topics, fearing for their safety.

All the interviewees in the sample were more or less opposed to the war from its beginning. Their views ranged from strong criticism openly expressed during the interviews to an implicit lack of support and avoidance of discussing the topic. None of the interviewees provided arguments or adhered to the usual narratives justifying or supporting the invasion. Those who maintained their businesses in Russia were the most hesitant to speak openly about the war and their views on it.

The New Russian Community in Dubai

Contrary to the common stereotype, often propagated by media outlets that focus on the wealth of Russians who fled to Dubai and their seeming indifference to the war, as well as the luxurious portrayal of Dubai life on Instagram, none of these generalizations accurately represent the real situation. First, Dubai, like Tbilisi and Berlin, hosted a lot of antiwar Russians who wanted to leave the country after the beginning of the war. However, relocation was predominantly feasible for those wealthy enough, belonging at least to the upper-middle class, such as top managers, successful entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as for those who were not wealthy but had a contract for work.

High living costs rendered Dubai unsuitable for those wishing to leave Russia without a significant amount of money or clear job prospects. Dubai also became an attractive destination for those seeking to relocate their capital—not due to their antiwar stance but because the war posed a threat to the economic stability of the Russian currency and businesses. These factors influenced both the composition and the “vibe” of the Russian community in Dubai. What unites people within it are not political views or attitudes toward the Russian state, but rather social proximity and professional, business and economic ties characterized by mutual interest, financial gain and economic subordination. This is how a young owner of an IT startup describes his impressions of Dubai:

Dubai is cool overall. It's interesting and fascinating to explore. There's a vibrant audience there. Everywhere you go, you can meet interesting people who have achieved significant things. It naturally filters out those who lack ambition because in Dubai the drive to work, move forward and create something is strong. It's motivating because everything there aligns with this ethos. (Interview 4, male, IT)

There are several major groups that make up the new Russian community in Dubai.

  • The first group consists of wealthy Russians who have used Dubai as a destination to safeguard their capital, the origin of which is sometimes known and sometimes not. They form a community that is closed to outsiders.

  • The second group includes so-called “info gypsies,” who make a living from social media and internet activities. They moved to Dubai because of the low taxes and, in some cases, following their target audiences and glamorous backgrounds.

  • The third group is made up of individuals who making a lot of money from cryptocurrency operations and have relocated to Dubai due to the low taxes.

  • The fourth group comprises entrepreneurs and professionals working in international companies. Their motives vary: for some, political views and the shock provoked by the invasion were major stimuli to leave Russia; for others, it was the impact of the war on the Russian domestic market, opportunities for professional growth in Dubai and the desire to diversify their businesses and finances.

  • The fifth group comprises professionals in the fashion, entertainment and food industry who followed people with money able to pay for high-end services.

  • Finally, there is a diverse group of individuals in the service sector (e.g., restaurants, beauty salons, etc.) catering to the growing demand. This group is distinct from the previous ones: these individuals reside in immigrant neighborhoods with comparatively cheaper living costs; their income is relatively low; and they are excluded from the social circles that connect the more affluent Russian residents in Dubai.

There is a distinct seasonality and sense of impermanence in the lives of the Russian community in Dubai. The “season” starts in October when the summer heat subsides and ends in May when it becomes unbearable again. During the summer, Dubai residents who can afford to leave do so: they either return to Russia or travel to other countries. Service workers and those whose positions and incomes do not allow for this seasonal change of location remain behind.

Economic Reasoning: Strategies for Professional Escape from the War

The conclusions and observations presented in this text are derived from interviews with new Dubai residents from the fourth group described above, namely entrepreneurs and professionals. In Russia, they belonged to the upper-middle class or higher, with a minimum monthly income of RUB 500,000, which is almost ten times more than the average salary in Russia in 2021.1 This group includes CEOs and business owners, as well as middle to top management from various companies.

Initial differences in social position, occupation, views and opportunities resulted in the various paths and motivations that led Russian entrepreneurs and professionals to Dubai. However, unlike many antiwar emigrants who chose other countries, their economic motivations were inseparable from their attitudes toward the war. Young specialists employed by big Russian and international companies who had an antiwar position decided to leave Russia, first, because they were not able to adjust to the changed social reality and (if males) feared being mobilized and, second, because they anticipated the degradation of opportunities for professional development in their sphere in the future.

You can't be a professional in a country that begins to completely close itself off from everyone. This is simply because your work opportunities diminish... and, as a result, the size of the market shrinks. The market becomes exclusively Russian and its volume isn't sufficient to accommodate expensive specialists. ... There's no space for tens of thousands of highly paid specialists. (Interview 5, female, IT)

I think there's a big problem for young people, for specialists. Staying in Russia now, given the existing blockade, means that in 10 years nobody might need you. ... Your experience will likely lose its international relevance. ... While Russian specialists are competitive in the current climate, I am afraid this will not be the case in a decade. (Interview 3, male, manager)

Young specialists adopted various strategies: some left the country and their previous jobs immediately, while others secured a new job before leaving. For many, the best — and sometimes the only viable — option was employment in international corporations in Dubai. Several were able to maintain or even increase their income levels compared to what they earned in Russia. However, all of them experienced a decline in quality of life due to the higher cost of living in Dubai.

The trajectories of business owners in fields such as IT and finance were more varied. The war, along with preceding political events (like the blocking of Facebook and Telegram in Russia, for example) and subsequent sanctions, affected some businesses more negatively than others. This adverse impact influenced the decisions of some entrepreneurs to seek new locations. This is how the young CEO of several startups explains his take on the situation back in 2021-2022:

There was a feeling that the same result could be achieved more easily and quickly in other geographies because [in Russia] it feels as though everything presents an obstacle, complicating every endeavor, and we exist in some kind of unclear... It's as if we're battling an invisible adversary, yet we could be pursuing entirely different outcomes more actively by employing the same efforts. … When working on an IT project, the aspect of investment, particularly venture financing, is crucial. Various funds previously invested in Russian projects before [2022]. Even then, it was subpar compared to the rest of the world and now it has effectively ended. (Interview 6, male, IT)

Some entrepreneurs left Russia immediately but were unable to reestablish their businesses in Dubai, leading them to become corporate employees or, in the case of those in the higher income segment, to live off their already accumulated capital. Others succeeded in establishing new businesses and severing their economic ties to Russia.

Those who retained their stakes in Russian ventures viewed the situation after the full-scale invasion, in their own words, as a forced but opportune moment to expand their enterprises. Some of them reframed the disturbing situation of the war by adopting the ideology of entrepreneurship. They claimed that crises and instability were beneficial because they created new opportunities and forced individuals to leave their comfort zones, thereby inspiring innovative business solutions. This framework helped them accept the personal and professional challenges brought about by the war, encouraging them to view the new situation as a chance to realize long-held ambitions related to business expansion.

Well, it was like all those different things, as if this [the war] also pushed toward making such a decision [to move from Russia]. Like, that was it, it had been already so obscure... the level of uncertainty was high and it felt just like the reason not to delay [the decision to move from Russia]... That is, we always thought about some kind of international thing, but all the time we only discussed it, discussed and discussed and nothing pushed us. We [he and his business partners – N. S.] thought, well, maybe this is exactly what would push us. And, so to say, if you do not do it now, then... nothing will push you. Well, we saw it this way because of a habit to look a bit more positively at everything that happens, through a different prism. That probably, it's some kind of sign [for us to move on] and so on. (Interview 6, male, IT)

On the other hand, for those who neither wanted to nor could sever all ties with Russia and were also apprehensive about openly criticizing Putin’s foreign policy, even from Dubai, referencing the ideology of entrepreneurship provided a way to avoid difficult topics. This approach allowed them to remain “positive” and “constructive” and thus to avoid contentious political discussions:

Q.: And if we go back to February 2022, what was your reaction... if you can remember, how did you react to the news that the war had started?
A.: Honestly, I do not really like discussing this, all that anxiety, fears and so forth, nothing good. So, I just work. I can talk about Dubai, but not that. I mean, there's nothing good to discuss here and... Well, in general, yes, I do not like discussing it.
Q.: Because there's no constructive purpose to it? Or are you afraid that discussing it might lead to consequences?
A.: It's a distressing topic. I just decided from the start that I wouldn't discuss it. Maybe you can discuss some nuances [speaking almost in a whisper, unclear]. Well, yes.
Q.: So, [you did not discuss it] with friends, I do not know, family?
A.: Definitely not with family. Maybe with friends, sometimes. I just try to keep my distance from all these...
Q.: From politics?
A.: Yes, yes. Especially when you start discussing it, there's always someone who will disagree with any point of view you have. It can always be very easily twisted. I do not see the point in talking about it. (Interview 7, male, entrepreneur)

Political Reasoning: The War and the Decision to Leave

The group under study possesses an important characteristic that sets them apart from many Russians who were unhappy about the war: they had sufficient resources not only to leave Russia but also to find new, decently paid jobs or business opportunities abroad and to cover the costs of the relatively expensive lifestyle in Dubai. Those who left their business and jobs in Russia due to their political views have lost out in terms of income and living standards compared to how they had it before. But none of them “lost everything” or became poor.

Most interviewees were shocked upon learning about the start of the invasion. The interviewees who openly criticized the Russian authorities and the war in their interviews explained that their decision to leave was driven partly by their inability to either come to terms with the current situation or effect any change. For them, staying in Russia could result in only three outcomes: losing their freedom (being arrested for opposing the war or being drafted), turning to defeatism (due to the inability to adjust to the new reality) or becoming a “collaborator,” as they framed it, meaning to continue living as if nothing had happened:

Well, that was it; I quickly made the decision [to leave]. I realized that the situation was indeed very dangerous and understood that life in Russia would be very difficult, as well. Moreover, when you do not support [the war], how are you supposed to live? How can you simply stay silent and just observe everything unfolding... Now, it has become evident that people are being persecuted for the slightest [reasons]. (Interview 3, male, manager)

...I understood that there was... simply no point [in staying in Russia]: I would either turn to drinking or end up in jail — those were my two options. Because I definitely couldn't collaborate, couldn't stay silent, well, that is, something bad would obviously happen to me. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

The fear of being mobilized, which for some emerged even before the “partial mobilization” announced in September 2022, along with a general feeling of insecurity, also played an important role in the decision to leave the country. Overall, the war transformed the daily lives of the most antiwar interviewees. Differences in views with pro-war or disengaged friends, relatives and colleagues brought frustration, while the changing political climate introduced a feeling of existential instability and insecurity:

It's terrible how everything once familiar suddenly turned upside down, leading to immense instability, fear and an indescribable sense of dread. … A profound sadness, sorrow and instability took over, despite the possibility of being in places like Dubai, Istanbul, Bali and beyond. Life saw a drastic change, one that brought about numerous fears. (Interview 4, male, IT)

Interestingly, all interviewees shared a common feeling of powerlessness to influence the situation in Russia, regardless of their previous occupation and political views. But unlike their compatriots with more modest incomes—who also felt they could not change the situation or even hold an opinion on it, believing either that “we do not know the whole truth” or “Putin knows better”2—the arguments of the well-off Dubai residents were different. They never delegated decision-making to more powerful “others,” nor did they doubt the correctness of their opinions. In explaining their helplessness, they referenced to an absence of specific strategies available to influence the situation, such as personal access or collective action. Some mentioned that the decision to attack Ukraine was made by a select group of people beyond their reach:

I'm not a media person at all. ... I definitely didn't feel like I could change something. That is, we need be realistic, as it seemed to me then. And I realized that this [the decision to attack Ukraine] was some other level of decision-making or other individuals could influence it, but not me, as just one entrepreneur. Especially since there is no cohesion in the business community. It's just individuals, just agreements and so on. And it seemed, on the contrary, that everything was very much up to one particular person, up to [his] decisions, rather than... Well, yes, overall, that was the feeling I had then. (Interview 6, male, IT).

Others pointed to the realization that little could be done upon seeing the small number of participants and the overwhelming presence of police at antiwar rallies.

… I went to a [antiwar] protest. It was very scary. … As I drove, the closer to the center, the more cars there were, more and more police vans. … I was driving, thinking... well, that's it, Putin is done. I expected to see a howling crowd as I turned the corner, but what I encountered was completely unexpected. It was empty. … Upon arriving, I found myself quickly surrounded by “cosmonauts” [riot police]. There was only a small gathering, I do not know, around 60 to 100 people at most, consisting of elderly men and women, alongside two frail students — that was it. … Witnessing this scene, I realized that it was over for me. It was the final straw. It just killed me. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

The interviewees saw this inability to affect the situation as a personal loss of agency and even betrayal to which they could not adjust:

And you know, what's most appalling to me personally is that I'm not doing anything harmful in this world. I'm involved in creation, in business. I'm prosperous and free. Yet, what truly disturbs me is the lack of freedom to express my views… This deeply troubles me because I no longer feel like a free person. Because… Why am I forced to consider acquiring another citizenship? Why must I contemplate finding a place for myself elsewhere? Why can’t I be afforded the opportunity to live freely and hold my own opinions? Why am I denied the right to make my own choices? This deeply upsets me. In Russia, only the right of the powerful prevails. No position exists in the country other than that of power. It's upsetting. (Interview 4, male, IT)

Before the war the interviewees with antiwar attitudes had acquired an experience of being able to change their lives. Their decision to leave Russia was not, despite their fears and anxieties, flight – it was a choice that helped them to get their agency back. They left the situation with which they could not, as they felt, come to terms while preserving their ability to choose and make an impact in other domains. Many of them reported that they helped Ukrainian friends and their own relatives who found themselves in difficult situations after the beginning of the war, as well as antiwar activists, or continued to be involved in charity projects in Russia and other countries. They also had positive justifications for their decision to leave Russia, including the future of their children and possibilities for professional development. In a way, emigration for them was a “displacement” of their agency and a way to get at least some of the control over their lives back:

... you know, do not sacrifice your principles. That's the very foundation of everything. What would I tell my child? When she grows up, she'll ask, "Dad, what did you do?" How would I answer if I had stayed there [in Russia]? But now, my conscience is clear. I've done everything for you, made sure you can speak English and have a future. Most importantly, I haven't sold my soul. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

Even in situations where antiwar interviewees were unable to start a new business outside of Russia, opting instead to continue living off their wealth, they felt that what they had done represented a choice: they chose to leave Russia (though they could have stayed); they chose to close their Russian businesses (though it was not necessary); they chose to live in another country. One of the interviewees explained:

I understand that there are plenty of opportunities to do something in Russia, but due to some ethical considerations, I cannot. Something inside me has shattered; I can no longer tolerate being anywhere near that fucking mess, though I once could. My tolerance for certain things was higher before. But something about the war changed that. … And, probably, that's why I left [Russia] …. It's like a silent protest, I would say. Of course, I can afford to do this. And it wasn't a flight like... when people ran in September [after the ‘partial mobilization’ was announced – N. S.]. No, of course not. But I understand that with my level of education, age, I won't be able to [do something in Europe], I clearly understand that. I could consider attempting something in Russia, but it would require time. Perhaps I might succeed or perhaps not; it may already be too late by then. I do not know. (Interview 1, male, finance)

Why Dubai?

Why did well-off Russians choose Dubai for emigration? With its proximity to Russia and the availability of direct flights—which facilitates family arrangements, such as visiting elderly parents or allowing children and wives to join while husbands got settled—Dubai was intuitive to many. A considerable number of Russians had already been residing in Dubai, and for a long time it had been a destination for luxurious vacations for a specific segment of the Russian elite.

Therefore, while practical considerations like flights, visa policies and the relative ease of opening a bank account and getting a residence permit (Dubai ID) were significant factors for some, for others Dubai's familiarity—either through connections with friends who had already moved there or personal experiences of visiting, whether on business trips or family vacations—played a crucial role. One of the interviewees cited his numerous previous visits as the reason for choosing Dubai:

So, my whole family, dad, mom, sister and I, flew there in '97, when dad gave her $10,000 and said: here, you can either buy a fur coat or we can start a business from Dubai. We bought all sorts of cool stuff and brought it all back to N [name of the Russian city where they lived – N. S.]. And somehow we got acquainted with the place in this way. Everything was completely different here [from how it is now – N. S.], it was like Sharm El Sheikh, like Egypt. No restrictions, everything was very Russified, much like in Turkey. Few people spoke English, but many could speak Russian. So, the economy was very much geared toward Russians. … It [Dubai] won the heart of my family and we visited whenever there was a chance to relax. Not always, of course, but we did visit. Plus, I have an allergy to pollen, very severe pollinosis. When it would start in the spring and it could turn into asthma, everyone would be like: well, let's go to Dubai again. Because we were a family of entrepreneurs, there was an opportunity. Although we lived, of course, in some two-star hotels, it didn't matter, we were there. Still, by the standards of those times, I was probably considered a bit of a rich kid [mazhor], I suppose... [In 2022] I decided to go to Dubai because I understood how to open a legal entity here. Although I've never been here as a tourist, everything was very clear to me. I knew all the procedures, how to get an Emirates ID, everything, I knew it all. I just never did it, although I wanted and dreamed of some business here, simply because I've always felt a connection to this place. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

The constraints imposed by the war constitute a significant factor that limited the scope of choices for people wanting to leave Russia. Europe and the US were unreachable for many of my interviewees due to the visa situation, sanctions and constantly changing policies toward Russian citizens, which created a lot of uncertainty. These restraints led interviewees to consider Dubai as a potential place of residence. An IT entrepreneur explains how he ended up in Dubai:

I didn't have a visa to the US, which was the only place I could seriously consider [for relocation]. … At that moment, the situation in Europe was uncertain—how they would perceive us [Russian citizens – N. S.] and what the prospects might be. There were no clear options regarding which countries were accessible. Consequently, the simplest choices for me were either X [country of his ethnic origin] or Dubai. (Interview 6, male, IT)

Besides that, whereas corporate specialists had their options limited by the job offers they received, entrepreneurs were hesitant about entering European or American markets for economic reasons – either because their products were not competitive enough or they were unsure how to adapt to them.

For well-off Russians Dubai had several advantages compared with Turkey and post-Soviet countries like Kazakhstan, Georgia or Armenia, which became destinations for many Russian war emigrants. Dubai offered a decent standard of living – high-quality apartments, good schools and kindergartens, a vibrant food scene and opportunities for the higher income levels they were accustomed to. Upon arrival, many interviewees found that Dubai was not so different from the large Russian cities they were accustomed to. They could easily encounter compatriots from the same social class, communicate in Russian and enjoy everyday comforts. Dubai did not feel like a completely foreign place to them – they could still speak Russian frequently and use English when necessary, without needing to put in much effort to assimilate. As a young female working in real estate observed:

You just do not feel like a stranger here. … It's as if you're in Russia, only somewhat filtered. It’s important for me not to be an alien, which means not feeling like I am in emigration. … You speak Russian 85% of your personal time, not including work hours. The work ratio is 70 [English] to 30 [Russian] for me. (Interview 10, female, real estate).

Another interviewee explained:

If you wish to maintain a certain standard of living, you wouldn't choose to move to Kazakhstan, for example, to Almaty, where there are still certain peculiarities. The country has its own distinct national identity and customs. Arriving there as an immigrant, you'd need to assimilate and make an effort to interact with everyone. Here [in Dubai], you do not need to; it's an immigrant country. … So, if you're a resident of Moscow, accustomed to a certain level of services and quality of life or if you're like us, simply wanting to relocate, the options become limited. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

One might ask: If someone is opposed to the restrictions of authoritarian politics in Russia, why would that individual choose another authoritarian country as their place of residence? For many new Russian residents, Dubai has become an example of “benevolent authoritarianism,” where individuals benefit from the government's policies, enjoying security and economic stability—unlike in Russia. This has had an interesting effect. Firstly, the experience of emigrating from Russia, particularly due to the war, has made these immigrants not just respect but value UAE's governance more than they might have under different circumstances. Secondly, their appreciation for the safety and business opportunities in the UAE has, for some, intensified their criticism of the Russian political system. Here is how a young woman working in real estate, describes the evolution of her political views after she moved to Dubai:

Well, my political views were quite fluid before the war. … When the war started, for the first three months, I kept saying that there obviously shouldn't be a war, but I found it difficult to fully understand my political stance at that moment. I just needed some time. It was only after arriving in Dubai and seeing the contrast in how a country with certain resources can have its rulers invest everything in its development, striving to turn it into a global metropolis, that I began to see things differently. In contrast, there's my native country, blessed with a rich cultural and natural heritage and abundant resources, yet its rulers appear to squander those treasures endlessly. I reached a point where I couldn't communicate with anyone, even my best friends. I removed them [from social media], saying: I do not want to know you, I condemn you. It was only here that my perspective fully formed. Perhaps, had I remained in Russia, I would not have reached this conclusion. (Interview 10, female, real estate)

Thus, in the context of war, increasing economic instability and the strengthening of authoritarian and conservative tendencies in Russia, Dubai was perceived by new Russian immigrants as a form of favorable authoritarianism for the affluent. At the same time, it was often contrasted with European countries, which, for many, became riskier and less appealing than before the war.

Between the West and Those Who Remain

Thanks to various studies,3 we can observe significant differences in how individuals who left Russia redefine their identities and attitudes toward different “others” – primarily toward those who stayed in Russia and those who hosted or could potentially host them (receiving communities).

The interviewees who left Russia for Dubai did not harbor frustration toward those who wanted to but could not leave, attributing this to the lack of necessary resources for such a move. However, all but one interviewee mentioned that those who stayed—particularly their colleagues or business partners with whom they had worked before and who continued their pre-war activities—economically felt better off after the war began. For instance, one former top manager of a Russian energy company recalls:

[There] it only got better. Because Western competition has disappeared altogether. And the guys there, they just really like it. … Everything became more stable. Because previously, many people still bought and ordered everything from the West. But now you have no choice; you need to develop your own. (Interview 8, male, consulting)

Unlike interviewees with less oppositional views who maintained their businesses in Russia, those in the sample who were antiwar experienced a sense of loss and possibly even sacrifice, considering their lives already stable and prosperous before the war. This feeling was especially pronounced since individuals from their social circles stayed and continued living as if nothing had happened, further intensifying their frustration with the policies of other countries that discriminate against Russian citizens. Such policies automatically lumped all Russians together, both the “bad” and the “good” ones, indiscriminately penalizing them.

Well, I understand that it's difficult to identify the good Russians and so on. But damn, if there were at least some attempts to do something for people like us. So that we... you know, those who are hanging out in Moscow, everything is cool for them, they are fine, their business is booming, yes, they do not care that people are getting poorer. Those who had an opportunity [after the war started], they are growing — that's the first thing. They have great conditions, everything is generally good with food, no problems with cars, flights. Sure, before they paid a million rubles for a direct business class flight to the Maldives; now they pay one and a half million and fly through Istanbul, for example. Sure, but they think: we earn more after all, it's not cut and dried [ne vse tak odnaznacho] and maybe Putin is right because, after all, we started to earn more. … And here we are, sitting here, having given up everything, showing precisely that what, in principle, a healthy person should have done. And so for us, the American visa — no way, flying to Europe — no way, but for them everything is fine. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

This frustration intensifies upon realizing that their fellow citizens, particularly those unaffected by the war who continue to enjoy life in Russia, as well as the benefits of traveling or residing in Dubai to offset any loss in comfort, are managing to have the best of both worlds. The same interviewee continues:

[There are people here in Dubai who] openly say "war," who do not mince their words, not using phrases like “those events” — they do not use any such euphemism. But despite this, there are more people who think: Dubai is a place where ... you can still fly to your Moscow because Emirates operates flights. And you can get a bank card to make everything OK, to make everything satisfactory. And that's why they are here. They fly back and forth, hypocritically posting about how great everything is in their beloved Moscow, how amazing it is there. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

A Tiny World with Butterflies and Unicorns

People who moved to Dubai had a distinct experience compared to their fellow citizens who relocated to ex-Soviet republics or to Europe. Firstly, they did not encounter discrimination based on their views and nationality within the hosting community, which eliminated the pressure to prove in the UAE that they are “good Russians.” Secondly, since the UAE prohibits public political demonstrations, they could not engage in political activities such as rallies, which were observed in other countries. Thirdly, the host community in the UAE does not expect them to be emotionally or politically engaged with the ongoing war, welcoming people regardless of their views.

Initially, Dubai was an attractive option compared with other countries because holding a Russian passport and nationality did not pose an issue there. A unique situation was created by the authoritarian regime's restrictions on political demonstrations; general orientation toward including anyone who can pay and comply; economic stability and prosperity as the main sources of its political legitimacy; and, finally, a cautious foreign policy aimed at maintaining ties with both Western countries and Russia. This approach transformed the UAE into an enclave where Russians could temporarily escape from political news and the war launched by their country and also avoid blame and stigma. Consequently, this made Dubai more attractive for relocation compared to other post-Soviet countries. One interviewee explained his decision not to move to Georgia or Armenia but Dubai:

Q.: [Why did not you go to] Georgia, Armenia or Turkey?
A.: Well, they are basically, it's very much the same ... well, let's say, infrastructure like schools [is not as good there] and again this propaganda from the other side... I didn't want to deal with that. Not that I wanted to forget [about the war]. But I think for many it was important that the situation was already oppressive, you doomscrolled all the time and you've already destroyed your life by making such a decision [to leave Russia] and on top of that, some have burned quite serious bridges. Then, arriving in, let's say, Tbilisi and seeing everything adorned with yellow-blue flags, like on Twitter, adds another layer of complexity. (Interview 2, male, real estate).

At the same time, this conscious avoidance of a highly politicized climate does not mean that the interviewee truly wants to forget about the war. For him, as for other antiwar interviewees, it is still important to be able to remember and to share their emotions and concerns about the war with others. However, as in the case of their career paths and life in general, these individuals prefer to have the ability to choose and to be in control, instead of being told what they should feel, when and how. For example, the same interviewee quoted above explains that he remains emotionally involved in the war and expresses gratitude for having new friends in Dubai — in his case, a Belarusian couple — who can understand him:

We've met a Belarusian couple here and, well, probably, if not for them, I might have gone insane too, because, well, I'm politically active and all these things, I still experience them and continue to live through them. Of course, I've unsubscribed from some channels, cleared up my information space a bit, because I try to channel my energy into something positive somehow. … They [the Belarusian couple] are cool because they are very... with them, I really feel this... they understand everything without many words. They are awesome people. With Y. [husband’s name – N. S.] there... he supports me, tells me what's happening, when some troubles occur, we somehow pull each other through and offer support, because otherwise, without these conversations, sometimes you feel like you can't do anything. (Interview 2, male, real estate)

“We live here in a tiny world with butterflies and unicorns; there is no conflict here,” this is how one of my interviewees described life in Dubai. Paradoxically, like the previous interview demonstrated, while this distance from the war affords many people a sense of everyday comfort and normalcy (with many noting that some of their colleagues are Ukrainians and there are no tensions between them), it also irritates those holding the most radical antiwar views.

In different post-February 2022 Russian emigrant communities, researchers observe diverse practices of moral and emotional management. For instance, according to a study by Ekaterina Korableva,4 Russian emigrants in Georgia welcomed the constant reminders of the war and the criticism from locals, as it helps them remain conscious of the conflict and maintain their awareness. The emotional and moral management among new Dubai residents, however, differs significantly. Many of them found it necessary to occasionally forget about the war while in Dubai. This creates an intriguing disposition among antiwar emigrants from the sample: on the one hand, the atmosphere of “nothing is happening” prevailing both in big Russian cities and in Dubai feels annoying, but on the other, it offers a sense of relief.

I just feel sorry for the country, I worry about the country [Russia – N. S.]. This whole story [the war], let's say, upsets me, to put it mildly. [There is] these streams of [Ukrainian] refugees, I've been to those camps for Ukrainian refugees. Two million people who passed through Berlin. I was in Poland. Everywhere. … It's a nightmare. Horrifying. … That's what I do not like about Dubai. In Dubai they do not talk about the war. It's like Rublyovka just moved to the Palm.5 And everyone is so happy. It feels like everyone just happened to meet, as if we're all at a resort. It's as though it were August and we've found ourselves in Monte Carlo by chance. No, we're not here by accident, we're all fucked. But no, here it's all about the positive only. Dubai is happiness, joy. … Toxic positivity. This is pure self-delusion, reminiscent of Instagram where people peddle various courses. It's all such toxic positivity, that's Dubai. Of course, everyone discusses some problems, at work during the day everyone is yelling, screaming. But in the evening, you go out and there boundless happiness, joy starts, everything is good for everyone there. Everyone is so kind, from the point of view... you spend a month there and you really start feeling good. … And considering that all of Moscow is there. It's like a new Moscow. Of course, it's nice to be there. (Interview 1, male, finance).

The “toxic positivity” atmosphere mentioned in the previous fragment distinguishes Dubai from the sometimes “toxic negativity” found in other countries that have become shelters for other groups of Russian emigrants. The same interviewee describes this difference, summarizing his own experience of residing in various countries:

[In Dubai] there's a different cross section of people. Successful, wealthy entrepreneurs with a high degree of adaptability have moved here. Berlin, on the other hand, has attracted more journalists... [people from the Russian opposition] ... who carry their resentment with them. They fled from something. Dubai is somewhat an attempt to simply reorient business. People who can afford something move here. An average entrepreneur usually has a more positive approach because it's very difficult otherwise, with a negative approach, fatalism and so on. Here [in Dubai], they just get things done. ... And in general, Dubai is like the New York of the Middle East. You get infected with this feeling that well, if they managed to build this beautiful mirage on the sand, then... it means everything is possible. It means we'll manage too. (Interview 1, male, finance)


Unlike many antiwar emigrants who chose other countries, for new Dubai residents from Russia, economic motivations were inseparable from their attitudes toward the war, with entrepreneurial ethics impacting their framing of its effects. They saw Dubai not as a refuge but as a place of new opportunities for professional or business development. Individuals from my sample were able to reestablish their professional careers and, though most of them had to adopt a more modest lifestyle compared with what they had in Russia, none experienced dramatic changes in their class status.

Moving to Dubai felt like emigration without the usual challenges, partly because my interviewees had sufficient funds or secured jobs to afford the move and partly due to the unique characteristics of the location itself. They found Dubai an easy place to assimilate due to its extensive expat community, widespread use of the Russian language and accessible cultural and social settings reminiscent of home. Although Dubai is known for its opulent lifestyle, the true privilege reserved for the affluent is the ability to shed certain aspects of their former lives while maintaining others in this foreign setting.

For most of the Russian emigrants from my sample, Dubai represents a form of “benevolent authoritarianism” offering security, economic stability and a degree of political neutrality. It compares favorably both with Russia and Europe, which are seen as unstable and hostile. Especially by emigrants with antiwar views who were able to reestablish their careers, Dubai is perceived as a safe spot where individuals can find stability and take control over their lives. This control refers not only to the decision to leave Russia and lead a new life in expensive Dubai, but also to the choice of a politically neutral environment: not pro-Russian and not pro-Ukrainian, free from propaganda from both sides, a place where they can choose when to remember and when to forget, where sometimes it feels that there is no war at all.

While there are many characteristics that distinguish Russian emigrants in Dubai from their compatriots who remained in Russia and those who relocated to other countries, there is one notable trait that seems unaffected by class background and location: a pervasive sense of political powerlessness. Successful entrepreneurs and well-paid professionals feel just as isolated and alienated from each other in political matters as ordinary people earning a median salary, far removed from the glamor of big cities. Russian politics felt inaccessible not only to the general public but also to the most privileged individuals: the wealthy, influential and those involved in developing sectors of the Russian economy.
  • Natalia Savelyeva

    PhD, Lecturer at the UW-Madison, researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory
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