Dubaigrad: Is Moscow Now the “Eighth Emirate”?

Diana Galeeva

June 13, 2024
Introductory Remarks: Comparing USSR–UAE and UAE-Russia Relations

The UAE and Russia began their relationship in 1971, when the USSR established relations with the newly-independent Emirates. The first Soviet delegation arrived in Abu Dhabi on January 29, 1972 and on February 14, the sides declared that they had agreed to exchange diplomatic representatives between embassies. However, pressure from Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states in the UAE prevented diplomatic ties from being established. The USSR seemed to have accepted this setback but continued to make positive comments about the UAE, as Moscow changed its position on the Saudi-UAE border dispute in favour of the latter.

Contact between the USSR and the UAE has grown since the 1980s. In December 1991, the UAE recognised the Russian Federation as the successor state of the USSR. Since 2002, there has been a Consulate General of the Russian Federation operating in Dubai. Nonetheless, relations have been growing especially with the presidency of Vladimir Putin. In September 2007, Putin made the first official visit to the UAE in the history of Russian-Emirati relations. In 2019, he again visited the UAE, while in 2022 Mohamed Al Nahyan made a working visit to Russia as UAE President. The seismic events of February 2022 have deeply changed this relationship, indicating a growing partnership, and a massive Russian diaspora now present in Dubai.

Political Relations

Since 2022, relations between Russia and the UAE have been reshaped at multilateral and bilateral levels, as the result of the development of new domains open of collaboration, including the defence industry.

The UAE joined the BRICS from January 1, 2024, a move which “is testament to the country’s balanced foreign policy” and its aims to build positive global multilateral collaborations. Among the most significant moves was on February 29, 2024 when in his address to the Federal Assembly, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of the bloc, and the importance of the UAE (in addition to other newcomers, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia). By 2028, it is estimated that the BRICS countries “will account for about 37% of global GDP, while the G7 figure will fall below 28%”. In addition to BRICS, both countries collaborate through the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to which the UAE was granted the status of a dialogue partner in May 2023.

It seems no coincidence that on December 6, 2023, Vladimir Putin visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia “practically in one putin-talk-oil-uae-saudi-meet-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-2023-12-06day”, making this his first visit to the Gulf since 2019. As stated by Sergey Lavrov, the UAE along with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar entered Russia’s “inner circle” as a foreign partner. The foundation, arguably, was built particularly when taking initial positions over the Ukraine war, with the UAE’s expression neutrality following a balancing act. This position is rooted in the long-term relations with Western countries. Disappointment with the US response to the Houthi drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in February 2022, prompted the UAE to diversify relations with the great powers by implementing the so-called “hedging policy.”

In this regard, the UAE might consider Russia a potential partner in defence and the military industry. In the 1990s, the UAE received a batch of state-of-the-art IFV-3s; in 2000, a contract was signed with the Instrument Design Bureau (Tula) to further advance the Pantsir-1 anti-aircraft gun and missile system. The collaboration has also been in the interest of building a modern military-industrial complex, and a legislative and regulatory framework has been published in this regard.

Currently, as the result of deepening relations to avoid Western sanctions, one potential direction of bilateral links for the Russian side is the search for new markets for arms exports. At the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in 2023, Moscow’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport stated it had more than 200 full-scale models of ammunition, armaments and equipment such as armoured vehicles, attack helicopters and anti-aircraft missile systems. However, this market is highly competitive, as in addition to traditional Western suppliers, nations such as South Korea, Israel and Turkey are seeking to collaborate closely with the Emirati defence industry.

Economic Relations

The Gulf countries play a crucial role in overcoming the impact of economic sanctions imposed by the West, and instead of the expected 15% deficit, the effect of sanctions was only 7% in 2022. Thanks to OPEC+ deals in October 2022, and April, June, and December 2023, where Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE played a leading role, oil and gas revenues increased by 28% in 2022, and ensured an increase in Russia's GDP in 2023 by more than 27%. These countries are also key partners for diversifying bilateral trade: in 2022, bilateral trade between Russia and the UAE increased by 68% to $8.5 billion. In 2023, the UAE became the first Arab trade partner with whom trade was valued above $10 billion.

Despite such positive dynamics, it should be noted that the UAE maintains close working relations with all other states, friendly or unfriendly to Russia. Economic links remain strong with the US, and in 2023, bilateral trade totalled $31.4 billion, with the US exporting more than $24.8 billion in goods and services to the UAE. This was up 19% in comparison to 2022. The trade boost in non-oil sectors amounted to more than 70% of the UAE’s GDP (among key fields for collaboration: logistics, transportations, computer and electronics, and manufacturing). Meanwhile, trade between China and the UAE soared by 37% to $107 billion in 2022.

“The UAE as the centre of a new geo-economic map” is a central hub of the trade corridor that routes a lot of investments, and investments can be crucial to be included in [sic.] the international North-South transport corridor (Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Nazali). On the sidelines of the Kazan Forum, a meeting was held between Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Marat Khusnullin and the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi. The prospects for the development of the North-South project were also discussed at the meeting, indicating the possibility of the GCC countries being involved as alternative routes for trade.

However, the UAE follows their own national interests, and for this reason it continues to develop relations with other international players. With discussions over its involvement in alternative banking and economic systems, the UAE, for instance, cancelled the licence for Russia’s sanctioned MTS bank branch, which was placed under British and US sanctions in February of 2023.

Societal Relations

In 2013, the British Prime minister and former mayor of London Boris Johnson described London as the “eighth emirate”. Can it be argued, in this period of rapid geopolitical transformations, that Moscow now has its own “Dubaigrad”? How have relations between Russia and the UAE been shaped over the last two years?

As noted by The New York Times, Dubai has become a “wartime harbor” for the Russian elite. In addition to “Londongrad”, the new term “Dubaigrad” has appeared as wealthy Russians fled, especially at the beginning of the war. For example, property purchases in Dubai by Russians surged up to 67% in the first three months of 2022 while property transactions in Dubai recorded a year-to-date high by the end of 2022. Russians transformed Dubai by opening cafes (such as Dodo Pizza and Angel Cakes), creating festivals and even sailing schools. Last year, Russian passport holders slipped to no.3, after Indian and British nationalities (already being so close to swap Londoners).

“People-to-people” diplomacy also assists in further boosting cultural ties. The opportunity to study Russian will appear in Dubai with a new cultural and educational centre, which will be opened by the Russian-Emirate Business Council of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation in the short run. This centre will open opportunities to host exhibitions, meetings with local cultural figures, and poetry evenings.

At the educational level, UAE higher education signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Russian Education and Science in 2014. Russia conducted the federal program “Russian Language” for 2016-2020, which offered a package of measures to promote the status of the Russian language at the international level. With the current trend of Russians fleeing to the UAE, it became evidence that it would be necessary to build a school, which was opened last year and named after Yevgeny Primakov.

Furthermore, there are growing interactions through mass media. The TNT Channel launched the programme “Surviving in Dubai”. About 27 million people watched it on TV, and there were 26 million views on the RuTube platform. Alexander Zharov, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of TNT, stressed that “this project is a marking product that draws the attention of viewers to the country in which it is filmed, and increases its tourism potential”. The BRICS games will be held in June, and will be attended by athletes from more than 50 countries. This event will be covered by the national sports channel Match TV. This also helps to further develop relations in media and sport contexts. Even with such ambitious projects in the works, relations are still limited, as Western, Middle Eastern and national content prevails among the Emirati audience.

Conclusion & Future Prospects

The UAE has emerged as a strategic “inner circle” ally of Russia, despite also carefully balancing relations with Western countries. As this piece illustrates, positive trends are being developed in the fields of diplomacy, economy, trade, military, defence, culture and educational links.

One starting point for growing further connections between the two countries is finding strategic points in implementations of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and Economic Agenda of Dubai “D33”. Common points can be found in Russia, under the expressed vision of the development of the country up to 2030 in the address to the Federal Assembly by President Vladimir Putin (on 29.02.2024). Given the special relations with the UAE, it is possible to integrate the visions of Abu Dhabi and D33 (Dubai as an economic hub; Dubai as the safest and most developing city in the world, and an international hub) into projects in the field of science, economics and finance, reflecting a leading role in the implementation of the North-South Transport Corridor.
  • Diana Galeeva

    Mohammed Bin Zayed University for Humanities, UAE
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