UAE President MBZ (left) and Russian President Putin (right). File/Sputnik

Explaining The UAE’s «Calculated Risk» In Engaging Russia


Mon, 19-06-2023 06:27 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, popularly referred to as MBZ, was the guest of honor of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) that took place last week. This event showcased Russia’s investment potential to its partners, of which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is its most important from the Gulf. Middle East Briefing, an investment news site, shared some relevant statistics about their economic ties in February. 

According to their report, bilateral trade grew by a whopping 68% in 2022 to $9 billion, which was mostly led by Russian exports of diamonds and services. They also wrote that “the UAE is Russia’s largest Gulf trading partner, accounting for 55% of the total Russian-Gulf trade, with the UAE accounting for 90% of Moscow’s total investments in the Arab countries. The UAE hosts more than 4,000 Russian companies, while Abu Dhabi owns 60 projects in Russia.”

The promising prospects of their economic ties are further buttressed by Reuters reporting in early February that the Emirati dirham had been used by Indian refiners to pay traders for Russian oil. The International Energy Agency reported last week that India accounted for approximately 40% of Russia’s crude oil exports, which in turn provides for a significant share of its budgetary revenue derived from resource sales that are partially facilitated by the UAE’s currency. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meeting of its members’ top diplomats in Goa, which saw the UAE granted dialogue partner status, that his country is having difficulty converting the billions of rupees that it’s accumulated. It’s therefore possible that some of this sum could be changed into dirhams owing to the abovementioned precedent of some Indian traders already using them to buy oil from Russia. 

The increasingly strategic nature of Russian-Emirati economic ties explains why MBZ was invited by Putin to this year’s SPIEF as his guest of honor, but there might have been more to this than simply expanding their trade and financial cooperation. During their meeting, Putin praised MBZ for the latter’s role in resolving humanitarian issues with Ukraine, which refers to his mediation in several prisoner swaps. MBZ responded by telling his Russian counterpart that the UAE is ready to play an even bigger role. 

This could potentially take the form of it mediating a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine if his country is requested by both parties to do so similar in spirit to how it mediated the historic Eritrean-Ethiopian peace deal in 2018. The UAE has earned Ukraine’s trust by voting together with it against Russia at the UN General Assembly while nevertheless retaining Russia’s trust in spite of that by scaling their economic ties over the past year as was earlier described. 

Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told members of a visiting African peace delegation last week that there can be no peace talks with Russia until it withdraws from that country’s 1991 borders, he might have a change of heart by this winter once his side’s counteroffensive ends. It hasn’t made much progress thus far, and if it fails to meet the American public’s expectations, then Congress might not have the popular support required for sustaining the same level of military aid to Ukraine. 

Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul referenced this scenario earlier in the month when saying that “this counteroffensive is going to be absolutely a game-changer one way or the other on whether or not Congress can pass a supplemental [spending package] on Ukraine.” Politico’s report from that time which cited his quote also included insight from others who agree with his assessment, which shows that it isn’t baseless speculation but a credible prediction.  

Should the counteroffensive fall short of meeting the American public’s expectations and thus lead to a reduction in military aid to Ukraine like McCaul warned, then it’s possible that interest in reaching a ceasefire for freezing the conflict might soon follow. Lavrov previously blamed the US for torpedoing last spring’s Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, which Putin said last week had resulted in a signed draft treaty, but it might reverse its alleged stance ahead of possibly curtailing aid if the counteroffensive fails. 

Since Zelensky signed a decree last October effectively banning talks with Putin, a reliable mediator would be required to help negotiate this between them, ergo the role that could potentially be played by MBZ. While Emirati-American ties haven’t been the best lately after a top US Treasury official traveled to the UAE in early February and implied that it might be violating his country’s sanctions against Russia and Iran, their strategic partnership still officially remains intact and both deny claims of any tensions. 

The US might therefore not be opposed to MBZ being the peacemaker in that scenario and could even prefer him over the other three most likely contenders for this role: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Regarding the first, his country shared a twelve-point position paper in February on ending the Ukrainian Crisis, but the US’ global rivalry with China means that America will never approve of him mediating. 

As for the second, while Istanbul hosted the prior round of Russian-Ukrainian talks, Erdogan isn’t considered a reliable partner by the US. Furthermore, Lavrov’s claim about the US torpedoing those exact same talks last year shouldn’t be forgotten. It might therefore not feel comfortable with recreating that framework the second time around whenever the conflicting parties start talking once again. For that reason, Erdogan can also likely be ruled out since the US might not approve of him mediating either. 

Concerning the final potential contender, who’s popularly known as MBS, he earlier mediated a major prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine last September which saw the release of detained fighters from several countries. He also recently reaffirmed his willingness to mediate a settlement to those two’s conflict too. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has voted with Ukraine against Russia at the UN General Assembly, but MBS has also retained close personal ties with Putin just like MBZ has. 

Moreover, Russia and Saudi Arabia jointly manage the global oil market through their close coordination in OPEC+, which means that there’s plenty of trust between them. Precisely because of their aforesaid close coordination, however, the US doesn’t trust MBS. He reportedly threatened the US with “major” economic pain last year and his latest supply slash could mean higher gas prices for US drivers. The resultant lack of goodwill between them thus probably precludes American approval for MBS’ mediation. 

The political considerations detailed in the preceding paragraphs tremendously raise the chances of MBZ receiving American approval for mediating between Putin and Zelensky instead of Xi, Erdogan, or MBS. It was likely with this scenario in mind that MBZ’s senior diplomatic advisor Anwar Gargash described his boss’ trip to Russia as a “calculated risk” in exclusive comments that he gave to CNN seeing as how it could draw the ire of some in the US and EU like that outlet predicted might happen. 

Even so, he said, “this polarization has to be broken. [Sheikh Mohamed] meets a lot of Western leaders, it is also important for him to hear from President Putin to be able also to support the international community’s collective effort, in order to go beyond the current polarization.” Gargash’s insight into MBZ’s latest trip to Russia suggests that he was invited as Putin’s guest of honor at this year’s SPIEF over Xi and Erdogan, with whose countries bilateral trade is much higher, partially for this mediation reason. 

MBZ helped mediate last December’s Russian-American prisoner swap alongside MBS, but unlike the Saudi Crown Prince, the Emirati President still remains in the US’ good graces as was earlier explained. This further extends credence to the prediction that he’d be approved by the US to mediate between Putin and Zelensky if the latter’s counteroffensive fails to meet the American public’s expectations, which was also previously addressed in this analysis.

Putting everything together, it can therefore be concluded that MBZ took the “calculated risk” of attending this year’s SPIEF as Putin’s guest of honor in spite of his trip potentially irking the West in order to position himself as the most likely mediator with Zelensky. Nobody else has the mutual trust with those two and Ukraine’s top American partner that’s required to play this role. If the US approves Ukraine holding ceasefire talks with Russia, then MBZ will likely be requested to mediate.

Andrew Korybko 

Moscow-based American political analyst