The United Arab Emirates surprised its Western allies last week when it abstained on a US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The move amounted to a declaration of neutrality from one of America’s closest Middle East allies in a war that has polarized the international community.
Anwar Gargash, adviser to the UAE president, said taking sides “would only lead to more violence.” The UAE’s priority is “to encourage all parties to resort to diplomatic action and to negotiate to find a political solution,” he said.
The war in Ukraine, which began less than two months after the UAE took a seat at the Security Council, has thrust the country’s changing foreign policy onto the world stage, showing how the Gulf state tries to juggle its ties between traditional allies and burgeoning partnerships. It also demonstrates the struggle faced by the West in getting unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s invasion from its allies.
The UAE called for a “peaceful solution” to the “Ukraine crisis in a way that guarantees the interests and national security of all parties,” the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi said in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. They also discussed energy cooperation.
Other Arab states have also refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion. Saudi Arabia, which counts Russia as its main partner in the OPEC+ alliance to coordinate oil output, said Tuesday it “supports international de-escalation efforts in Ukraine.” The Arab League on Monday also called for de-escalation and restraint in a joint communique. Neither has condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
“The UAE [shouldn’t] be projected as a puppet of the United States anymore,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the UAE. “Just because we have such great relations with America, we do not take orders from Washington, and we have to do things consistent with our own strategy and priority.”
The UAE’s apparent paving of an independent foreign policy comes amid Abu Dhabi’s frustration with the Biden administration’s treatment of issues of significance to the Gulf nation. Soon after Biden came to office, he removed the Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen from the US’ list of terrorist organizations. Less than a year later, the Houthis have begun a campaign of fatal strikes on Abu Dhabi. The US has pledged to bolster UAE defenses, but Abu Dhabi wants a redesignation of the Houthis as terrorists.
In December, the UAE suspended talks for a $23 billion deal with the US to acquire F-35 fighter jets after the talks were stalled by the administration. Then, last month, it announced that it was buying fighter jets from China for the first time ever.
“The UAE has yet to figure out how to navigate the new multipolar world,” Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow on Europe and the Gulf at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter. “The UAE and other Gulf monarchies are re-evaluating relations with the US who, in their strong view, reneged on its end of the bargain: providing security.”
Meanwhile, ties with Moscow have only grown stronger.
Two years ago, the UAE’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the capital in a grand ceremony, during which the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince described Russia as his “second home” as Putin cemented $1.3 billion worth of energy and technology deals.
Local newspapers called it the beginning of a “special relationship” and ran live updates of the visit. “It was clear the two leaders share a strong personal bond,” said Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper.
Ultimately, however, “it is a bit of a risk to elevate the position of Russia as an equal of the US,” said Karen Young, senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute. “[Staying neutral in the Ukraine conflict] is a calculation that Russia and Russian leadership will be useful to Emirati leadership.”
The last time a US president visited the UAE was 14 years ago, when George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. It was the only US presidential visit to the country.
“You have long heard people in the Gulf, policymakers, say that when you shake Putin’s hand, you know he will keep his word,” said Young. “[Putin] does what he wants, so I think there is a certain attraction in the Gulf to having that kind of certainty,” she added. “The frustration with the US is that when administrations change, policy changes, and that doesn’t happen in Russia – at least not yet.”
Trade between the UAE and Russia has been modest, but it has grown ten-fold since 1997, the Russian state news agency TASS reported.
As the third and seventh top oil producers respectively, Russia and the UAE coordinate crude output policies under the OPEC+ alliance. The UAE also depends heavily on Russian tourists. Russia grew to become the second-largest source market for Dubai’s tourism sector in 2021, climbing from eighth place in the previous year’s rankings, according state-run Wam news agency.
The relationship goes beyond energy and trade. Russia was the biggest wheat supplier to the UAE last year with about 50% market share, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
The UAE and other Gulf states will find themselves faced with situations like Ukraine “many times” again, wrote Bianco. “Hedging will be possible but limited.”
Dubai’s former finance chief Nasser al-Shaikh said that neutrality may not be sustainable if the conflict drags on.
“It might be possible to maintain neutrality now… but not in the near future as things unfold/escalate. Very small window of opportunity,” he tweeted.
Other top Middle East news
UN imposes arms embargo on Yemen’s Houthis, calls them ‘terrorist group’
The UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis on Monday, agreeing to expand a targeted arms embargo on several Houthi leaders to the whole group. The resolution referred to them as a “terrorist group.”
- Background: A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for seven years in a conflict largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The coalition, the US and UN sanctions monitors have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with arms, which both Tehran and the group deny.
- Why it matters: The move was pushed by the UAE after the Houthis claimed several drone and missile assaults on the UAE and Saudi Arabia this year.
Turkey says Russia canceled Black Sea passage bid upon its request
Russia canceled a bid to send four of its warships through Turkish waters into the Black Sea at Turkey’s request, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday, adding the decision was made before Ankara moved to restrict access to the straits over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Background: On Monday, Ankara said it had closed its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits under a 1936 pact that gives Turkey certain control over the passage of warships, especially at times of war. Turkey had warned both Black Sea and non-Black Sea countries not to pass warships through the straits.
- Why it matters: Turkey has good ties with Russia and Ukraine. Even as NATO members have hit Moscow with sanctions, any step too far by Ankara could harm its heavy Russian energy imports, trade and tourism sectors at a time of domestic economic turmoil.
Israel’s top court blocks Jerusalem eviction ‘until final decision on ownership’
The Israeli Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a group of Palestinian families facing eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem can stay in their homes until a final decision on ownership is made.
- Background: The families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah since the 1950s after fleeing homes in Haifa, Jaffa and other towns that became part of Israel. When Israel gained control of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, a law was passed allowing Israelis to claim land they said was theirs prior to 1948.
- Why it matters: Tensions in the neighborhood rose last year when it appeared the case was coming to a conclusion, and which Hamas used in part as a pretext for firing rockets at Jerusalem, triggering an 11-day war between Gaza militants and the Israeli army.
What to watch
Russian demands from Ukraine are “maximalist” and “unreasonable” and will not help ceasefire talks, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview on Tuesday.
The second round of talks between the delegations from Ukraine and Russia is planned for Wednesday, Russian state media reported. The first round this week yielded scant progress.
Watch the interview here:
Around the region
Living in giant space stations soaring through the cosmos. Overcoming disability with cutting-edge bionic limbs. Scientists in labs preserving species at risk of extinction. These are just a few possibilities envisioned by Dubai’s recently unveiled Museum of the Future.
The latest addition to the city’s famed skyline was inaugurated at a glitzy opening ceremony, accompanied by a light show, an orchestra and attended by the ruler of the emirate Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on February 22.
The enormous, elliptical structure is engraved with Arabic calligraphy, showing quotes from the ruler.
Inside, the exhibits show what life in the United Arab Emirates could be like in the next half-century.
“We know the next 50 years [will be] amazing years for humanity,” Mohammad al-Gergawi, Chairman of the Dubai Future Foundation, told CNN’s Becky Anderson.
The building itself bursts with symbolism. Its designers say the stainless-steel circular structure represents humanity, the green mound within the circle represents earth, and the void at the center represents the unknown future.
Last year, the National Geographic listed the building as one of the 14 most beautiful museums in the world because of its unique architecture and high-end technology.
More than 200 feet tall and occupying an overall area capacity of 30,548 square meters, the museum aims to show not only what humans can achieve, but also what obstacles they can overcome.
“The station [is] called Amal, Hope, which is that’s part of our DNA as a nation,” said Gergawi. “We are in the business of creating hope.”
The museum officially opened its doors to visitors last week.