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UAE president holds talks with 'friendly' Putin in Russia as two leaders forge closer ties

Meeting between two leaders in Russia occurs despite increasing anger in the US that Gulf countries not falling in line against Moscow
The UAE’s President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed meeting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral ties in a visit to Russia (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the increasing development of bilateral ties with the UAE during a meeting in Russia with his Emirati counterpart Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Tuesday.

The UAE's president is meeting Putin days after a decision by Opec and allied producers, including Russia, to cut the group's daily production target by two million barrels, angering the United States.

"Last year, the growth in trade turnover amounted to 65 percent before the crisis in Ukraine, and this year, despite all the difficulties, the growth continues - not as big as last year, but nevertheless - 17 percent," said Putin

'The UAE also has been more diplomatically active regionally and globally, a skill that might come in handy in lessening the current tensions between Russia and the West'

- Asif Shuja, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute

According to the state-run WAM agency, Putin and the Emirati president, known as MBZ, will discuss regional and international issues with "friendly" Russia. 

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two leaders would be meeting one-to-one to hold "private" discussions on bilateral issues at the Russian president's home city of St Petersburg. 

The US condemned the decision by Opec+, which includes Russia and the UAE, to cut oil production in a bid to stabilise oil prices, which says the move would bolster Russian finances.

US lawmakers have called on President Joe Biden to "freeze all aspects" of US cooperation with Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest crude oil producers, in response to the kingdom's cooperation with Russia. 

Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "Either you support the rest of the free world in trying to stop a war criminal from violently wiping off an entire country off of the map, or you support him. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose the latter in a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest."

Such rhetoric, however, hasn't stopped the UAE from deepening its relations with Russia. 

"Although the US has expressed anger on the recent cut on oil production by the OPEC+, it was anticipating this.

"That was precisely the reason for President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia, despite his much-publicized reservations on the US relationship with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Salman," said Dr Asif Shuja, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Hedging its bets

In a strongly worded statement, Biden said he was "disappointed by the shortsighted decision by OPEC+ to cut production quotas while the global economy is dealing with the continued negative impact of Putin's invasion of Ukraine."

Shuja, however, believes that far from siding with Russia, Opec countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are behaving in their economic self-interest. 

"There are strong economic reasons for Saudi Arabia's decision, and the US has no option but to attempt to defer it by putting higher strategic costs," said Shuja. 

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With the war in Ukraine likely to continue for the foreseeable future, "pumping more oil at a cheaper cost for a protracted time is not sustainable for Saudi Arabia," added Shuja. 

Dubai's former finance chief, Nasser al-Shaikh, went on Twitter saying that MBS was going to Russia to try to "defuse a European war that has exhausted the world".

The UAE, a long-time strategic US ally in the region, has snubbed Western sanctions on Russia and maintained relations with both sides.

In March, Middle East Eye reported that increasingly desperate affluent Russians were looking to put their assets away from the clutches of the western sanctions regime. 

Dubai has become one of the main go-to destinations for tech-savvy Russian workers looking to expand or maintain their western clients. 

This shouldn't be all that surprising. The UAE's economic model has been built on being open to all political and economic actors.

Openings to Israel, Iran

The UAE's lack of oil wealth means that it cannot afford low oil prices. Additionally, Shuja believes that "the way the UAE has diversified its economy in recent decades, peace and stability has become a prerequisite for sustenance and growth of its economy."

Economic self-interest is not the only factor that has pushed the UAE to maintain closer ties with Russia.

In recent years the absolute monarchy has forged closer relations with Israelre-appointed an ambassador to Iran after a six-year absence, and mended fences with Turkey following an acrimonious break-up.

"The UAE also has been more diplomatically active regionally and globally, a skill that might come in handy in lessening the current tensions between Russia and the West," said Shuja.

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"Effectively, this visit of Mohammed bin Zayed is meant neither for optics nor for opportunism, but using the available skills and resources in a manner that benefits all, including the UAE."

The visit also underscores a drift amongst Gulf states, including the UAE, towards hedging their bets with Russia politically, something that is increasingly coming under scrutiny given decades of being under a US security umbrella.

The UAE and other Gulf states "did not care much on balancing their relations with other major powers," said Shuja. However, a shift in the US posture in the region towards containing China and now with the war in Europe has driven leaders like MBZ to forge their own political paths. 

"As the US shifted its priority away from the Middle East, and Iran enhanced its own military power, these countries became quite concerned and started exploring alternatives to the US," added Shuja. 

In June 2018, Russia and the UAE cemented their burgeoning relations and forged a strategic partnership agreement with the UAE, which was the first deal of its kind between Moscow and the Gulf nations. 

The deal, amongst other things, allowed Russia to enter the UAE's lucrative arms market without slighting the US. 

Russia has provided this alternative to the US, said Shuja. However, he cautioned that: "The UAE's strategy is to continue to balance its relationships with both the US and Russia, and playing the mediator in the Ukraine crisis could be an optimum way to bring that effort to fruition."

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