Why the UAE is hedging its position on Russia's war in Ukraine

Analysis - Ukraine UAE
6 min read
02 March, 2022

One day after Russia’s multi-pronged attack against Ukraine began, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted on a US-drafted resolution that would have condemned Moscow’s invasion.

Russia unsurprisingly vetoed it. Joining China and India, all close allies of Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) abstained, signalling Abu Dhabi’s desire to be “neutral” in Europe’s worst security crisis since 1945, despite its close ties to the US-led Western alliance.

Many in Washington were outraged. But mindful of Abu Dhabi’s deepening partnership with Putin's Russia, this abstention should not have shocked informed observers.

From the Levant to North Africa, the UAE has aligned much more closely with the Kremlin than the White House on several sensitive dossiers. Emirati support for Syria’s despot Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar, both backed and armed by Moscow, highlight this point. 

One day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov reviewed “a number of regional and international developments and issues of common interest” in a phone conversation.

"From the Levant to North Africa, the UAE has aligned much more closely with the Kremlin than the White House on several sensitive dossiers"

The UAE’s foreign affairs ministry put out a statement which explained that “Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed stressed the depth of friendship between the UAE and Russia, and the two countries' leadership, and highlighted the keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields for the higher good of their peoples.”

At a time when Western countries were working to isolate Moscow, this phone call sent a message that Washington could not count on Abu Dhabi to support such efforts.

“From our experience in a region filled with crises, we believe that political solutions and creating balances that enhance security and stability are the best way to confront crises and control their effects,” tweeted Dr Anwar Gargash, Diplomatic Advisor to the UAE President, three days after Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Gargash asserted that “on the Ukrainian crisis, our priorities are to encourage all parties to adopt diplomacy and negotiate to find a political settlement that will end this crisis.” He also stated that “taking sides would only lead to more violence.”

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Geopolitical dimensions of the UAE's 'neutral' stance

To be sure, this stance must be interpreted within the context of the UAE viewing its partnership with Washington as less reliable compared to previous points in modern history.

Like their Saudi counterparts, officials in the UAE see it in their country’s interest to invest in increasingly diversified relationships around the world while preparing for a “post-American Gulf”.

This is particularly so in light of the US’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and the lack of response from Washington to the September 2019 Aramco attacks.

“Russia, like China and others, are trying to fill the vacuum left by America [and] Russia is well positioned to play a bigger role,” Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, told the Financial Times.

Here, the recent abstention signals Abu Dhabi’s view that appeasing Moscow is critical to the Gulf Arab country’s efforts to become more autonomous from the West.

A child on a swing outside a residential building damaged by a missile on 25 February 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. [Getty]

“From the UAE's perspective, Russia has proven to be a valuable partner in regards to critical strategic issues for them in Syria, Libya, and even in Yemen where the US has not,” explained Dr Dania Thafer, Executive Director of the Gulf International Forum, in an interview with The New Arab.

“Furthermore, the UAE…[is] weary about the US commitment in the Gulf region and want[s] to keep their options open,” she added.

Dr Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at Exeter university’s Centre for Gulf Studies, told TNA that the UAE does not want to take sides in the conflict.

“Its foreign policy is built around growing its ties with multiple global powers, including those that are in conflict or competition with one another. This approach has several benefits for the UAE, ensuring it can diversify its trade and security relationships, and secure a greater level of independence in its foreign policy,” she added.

“Although the UAE wants to avoid choosing a side, it will come under increasing pressure to do so, not least of all in its capacity as the chair of the UN Security Council [this] month.”

Other experts agree that the leadership in Abu Dhabi believes that the UAE would have much more to lose than gain from siding with its Western partners against the Kremlin regarding Ukraine.

“We see a clear quest for strategic autonomy from the UAE to become a credible, self-sustaining regional actor…to be more in control of its obligations - strategic and economic - and to drive more value from closer partnerships with regional powers like Turkey, Iran, and rising global powers like China, instead of staying put with an unconditional alliance with the West - they see no rationale behind it anymore,” said Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, a senior researcher in geopolitics and a doctoral candidate in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC, in an interview with TNA.

“The UAE sees no interests to meddle with calculations on either side [in the Russia-Ukraine conflict].”

"The UAE's balancing act will become even harder to maintain, especially if it invites greater scrutiny of the UAE's stance as a close US partner"

The road ahead

This strategy of pursuing “neutrality” vis-à-vis the invasion of Ukraine could pose challenges when it comes to Abu Dhabi-Washington relations.

“As the UAE has close relationships with both Russia and the US that it wants to preserve, its leadership does not want to take sides in a conflict that does not involve them,” Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told TNA.

“However, that is harder to balance when they are on the Security Council and when the relationship between the US and Russia has ruptured so dramatically. It was only [in January 2022] that US forces in Abu Dhabi came under attack and took action to defend the UAE, and if the situation in Ukraine continues to worsen, I suspect that the UAE's balancing act will become even harder to maintain, especially if it invites greater scrutiny of the UAE's stance as a close US partner.”

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Having pushed hard to obtain a seat on the UNSC, the UAE now must hedge cautiously as the war in Ukraine rages on with no one knowing how it will end. 

Abu Dhabi has no intentions of burning any bridges with Washington and this vote is by no means a signal that the decades-old strong partnership between the US and UAE is close to being over.

That said, without joining Washington in standing against Moscow, it is not difficult to imagine the UAE facing some problems in its relationship with the US. With Western sanctions quickly escalating in ways no one had predicted, it may also be hard for Emirati businesses and financial interests to keep ties with Russia.

What remains to be seen is what the Biden administration may, or may not, do to put pressure on the UAE to vote in the UNSC and join Western sanctions in ways that bode more positively for American policies.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero