UAE gets more than it bargained for with war in Ukraine

Caught between Russian and American pressure, the new member of the UN Security Council carefully hedges statements to avoid angering a country crucial to its economy

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend the official welcome ceremony in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend the official welcome ceremony in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates campaigned hard for a seat on the UN Security Council in the country’s international push to highlight the 50-year anniversary of its formation. But it got more than it bargained for with Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The federation of sheikhdoms, home to Dubai’s skyscrapers, abstained in a Security Council vote late last week condemning Moscow’s invasion. The Emirates now carefully hedges its statements to avoid angering a country crucial to its economy as it tries to shake off the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, the United States, whose military provides security guarantees to the Emirates amid tensions over the collapsing nuclear deal with Iran, has lobbied the UAE to add its voice against Moscow.

That pressure on the UAE will only grow Monday as the UN prepares for an emergency session of the General Assembly over the war, only its 11th-ever. The Security Council will likely hold more votes as well seeking to condemn Russia.

The Emiratis face a major risk in upsetting Russia, which has become an important trade partner, a source of tourists to the UAE and a military power across the wider Middle East.

Russia firmly rooted its presence in the region during the chaos of the civil war in Syria with its military backing of President Bashar Assad. Russian aircraft, along with Assad’s air forces, “attacked civilian neighborhoods, including crowded markets during the day, with explosive bombs with wide-area effects, killing and injuring civilians in attacks that amounted to war crimes,” the UN’s Human Rights Council said in a report last year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and UAE’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan enter a hall for their joint news conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 9, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Those strikes amounted to “systematic failure to take any precautions to spare civilians from harm,” the report added.

But after opposing Assad for years, the UAE has re-established diplomatic and economic ties with Syria, with one Emirati official even praising Assad’s “wise leadership” during a war that continues today.

Israel, which established diplomatic ties with the UAE in 2020, similarly has issued cautiously worded statements since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Israel does not want to disrupt its quiet understanding with Moscow that enables it to carry out airstrikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria.

In Libya, despite a UN embargo, the UAE and Russia, along with other countries, have transported weapons to their common ally in the turmoil plaguing that country since the 2011 uprising and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, according to UN investigators. The UAE also “may provide some financing” for the Russian mercenary firm Wagner in Libya, a Pentagon inspector general report claimed in 2020, though the Emirates disputed the allegation.

Russian influence extends beyond the battlefield into the hushed diplomatic meetings ongoing in Vienna over the Iranian nuclear deal. The collapse of the accord after then-US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America has sparked years of attacks across the Mideast that have slowly drawn closer and closer to the Emirates.

Since the start of this year, Abu Dhabi has faced a series of drone and missile attacks from Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, including one that killed three people and wounded six others at a state oil depot. The UAE, which has been part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis, long has viewed Iran as an existential threat but has sought to cool tensions with Tehran amid the negotiations.

This undated file photo obtained by The Associated Press, shows a UAV-X drone flown by Yemen’s Houthi rebels that is displayed in Hodeida, Yemen. (AP Photo, File)

The Emiratis’ effort to avoid directly blaming Russia for the Ukraine war likely raised attention in Washington — particularly since US military forces fired Patriot missile batteries in combat for the first time in nearly 20 years to defend Abu Dhabi from the recent attacks.

Russia’s ambassador in Vienna has been a vocal proponent of restoring the nuclear deal. Iran’s hardline president, meanwhile, has echoed Moscow’s stance by repeatedly calling NATO expansion in Europe a “serious threat,” even as protesters recently braved security forces in Tehran to chant “Death to Putin!”

Tensions can even be seen in the staid realm of government statements. In a call Thursday to Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about “Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack against Ukraine,” according to Blinken’s office.

A later Emirates statement described the two as merely discussing “bilateral strategic relations and ways of strengthening joint cooperation.” There was no mention of Ukraine or Russia — just like in another statement acknowledging a call between Sheikh Abdullah and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens as he is introduced to speak at a mission Australia meet and greet in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)

Sheikh Abdullah also had been scheduled to visit Lavrov on Monday in Moscow, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Their meeting was to come ahead of another UN Security Council vote over an Emirati proposal to put an expanded arms embargo on the Houthis. Emirati officials, however, did not acknowledge the scheduled meeting.

Emirati-Russian relations also focus largely on business as well, something visible in the Cyrillic signs dotting the UAE’s cavernous malls and airport concourses.

Russia led oil producers outside of OPEC into a production deal that propped up prices, to the benefit of the Emirates and neighboring Saudi Arabia. The UAE also is Russia’s largest economic partner in the wider Gulf Cooperation Council, with total trade last year between the two countries estimated at $4 billion.

Among the throngs flooding to Dubai’s beaches and nightclubs amid the pandemic, Russians made up their third-largest source market for tourists in 2021. For the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, Russians represented its No. 1 tourist market last year. Russia also remains an important buyer in Dubai’s boom-and-bust real estate market — which also has attracted the attention of those trying to subvert international sanctions.

For now, though, the Emiratis appear to be like India in carefully abstaining from criticizing Russia. In explaining her country’s abstention Thursday, Emirati Ambassador Lana Zaki Nusseibeh described the vote as a “foregone conclusion,” likely referring to Russia’s veto power.

However, her country campaigned for that Security Council seat it now holds. And it will continue to put the UAE under pressure internationally as long as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on.

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