Why the Relationship Between Russia and the United Arab Emirates is Strengthening

While the U.S. muddles along in the Middle East, Russia and the UAE are building a stronger bond.

On January 15, the chairman of Libya’s High Council of State Khalid al-Mishri claimed that the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Moscow obstructed Russia’s efforts to convince Libya National Army (LNA) chief Khalifa Haftar to accept a ceasefire. This revelation prompted speculation about a Russia-UAE rift over Libya, but these concerns were swiftly assuaged by Moscow and Abu Dhabi’s joint expressions of support for the OPEC+ oil price regulation pact, and participations in the Berlin peace talks on Libya.

Although the UAE is frequently described as the strongest U.S. security partner on the Arabian Peninsula, Russia’s relationship with the UAE has strengthened considerably in recent years. In June 2018, Russia forged a strategic partnership agreement with the UAE, which was the first deal of its kind between Moscow and a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state. This agreement has allowed Russia to enter the UAE’s lucrative arms market by offering to sell Abu Dhabi Su-57 fighter jets and laid the foundation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to UAE in October 2019.

In addition to their cooperation in the energy and defense sectors, Russia and the UAE’s positions on regional crises have markedly converged over the past year. This convergence is illustrated by the UAE’s recognition of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy, Russian and Emirati support for Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, and Russia’s diplomatic engagement with the UAE-aligned Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen. The synergy between Russian and Emirati positions on Middle East crises can be explained by shared interests, but also reflect the common ideas that both countries share about the emerging regional order. 

The first ideational driver of Russia’s strategic partnership with the UAE is the shared opposition of both countries to popular uprisings. Russia and the UAE’s aversion to democratic movements in the Middle East can be explained by their rejections of Western liberal values and common regime security concerns. Russia’s 2006 sovereign democracy concept and the UAE’s social contract system prioritize stability and economic well-being over political freedom. This common worldview has caused Russian and Emirati policymakers to equate democracy with instability and reject U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. The 2011-12 Russian election protests and sporadic displays of dissent in the UAE in early 2011 raised alarm in both countries about the diffusion potential of mass protests and convinced them to embrace counter-revolutionary positions.

Although Russia and the UAE did not universally agree on how to handle the Arab Spring, as the UAE supported the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and Syrian opposition efforts to overthrow Assad, the leaderships of both countries viewed the Arab Spring as a destabilizing phenomenon. In December 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Arab uprisings could result in an escalation of sectarian tensions in the Middle East. On a similarly grim note, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash warned in an April 2012 speech that “protests turning into violent confrontations had become the hallmark” of the Arab Spring. These sentiments have persisted in Russia and the UAE to this date, as both countries cheered on General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup in Egypt in 2013 and supported military-backed transitions during the recent uprisings in Algeria and Sudan.

The second ideational component of the Russia-UAE strategic partnership is the strident opposition of both countries to grassroots Islamist movements. Since 2003, Russia has designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and Moscow has welcomed the UAE’s efforts to contain the spread of political Islam across the Middle East. The August 2016 Grozny Conference on Sunni Islam illustrated the extent of Russia-UAE cooperation against political Islam and highlighted Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s support for the UAE’s anti-Islamist policies. The Abu Dhabi-based Tabah Foundation was a co-organizer of the Grozny Conference. Much to the UAE’s satisfaction, the summit’s attendees labelled the Muslim Brotherhood as an extremist organization akin to ISIS, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Salafist movements, and called for the creation of a Russian satellite television channel to rival Al Jazeera.    

Although Russia has disagreed with some of the UAE’s most extreme measures to contain political Islam, such as the blockade against Qatar, Moscow and Abu Dhabi have adopted strikingly similar discourses on extremism in Syria and Libya. In April 2018, Gargash described the Syrian civil war as a struggle between Assad and Islamic extremism, which reiterated long-standing Russian narratives. In January 2019, Russia and the UAE converted this common rhetoric into policy coordination by formally announcing plans for counterterrorism cooperation in Syria. Similarly, in Libya, Russian and Emirati officials have exaggerated the threat posed by Islamist rebel groups affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) and backed Khalifa Haftar as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism.

While the depth of Russia-UAE diplomatic cooperation can be primarily explained by the anti-democratic and anti-Islamist agendas of both countries, Moscow is also encouraged by the UAE’s increasingly cautious approach to confronting Iran. Russian officials viewed the UAE’s refusal to blame Iran for the May 2019 Fujairah oil tanker attacks as an opening to engage with Abu Dhabi on Gulf security. In June, Lavrov claimed he “felt interest” from the UAE in Russia’s plans to de-escalate tensions with Iran by promoting dialogue between Tehran and the Arab Gulf monarchies. The UAE’s calls for restraint after the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani will likely provide further impetus for Russia’s outreach to the UAE on Gulf security issues.

Looking ahead, there are potential areas of disagreement between Russia and the UAE, which could slow down the strategic partnership’s burgeoning momentum. The contradiction between Russia’s balancing strategy in Libya and the UAE’s all-out support for Haftar could cause Moscow to view Abu Dhabi as an impediment to its diplomatic aspirations in Libya. Russia also views the UAE’s unilateralism in southern Yemen with trepidation, and on August 31, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern about UAE airstrikes in Yemen. The new Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which threatens punitive measures from the U.S. government against financial sponsors of Assad, could deter Emirati investments in Syria’s reconstruction process and limit Russia-UAE cooperation in Syria.

In spite of these countervailing headwinds and Russia’s long-standing disagreements with the UAE on Iran and Qatar, the convergences between Moscow and Abu Dhabi on opposing popular revolutions, deterring grassroots Islamist movements and preventing a military escalation in the Persian Gulf provide firm foundations for the Russia-UAE strategic partnership. As the UAE embraces the emerging multipolar world order by strengthening its links with leading non-Western powers and hedging against faltering U.S. leadership in the Middle East, the Russia-UAE relationship will likely continue to strengthen in the months and years to come.

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