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 Puti