The president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, met in Moscow on Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We discussed several issues of mutual concern, including the Ukraine crisis, and the importance of engaging in dialogue to reduce tensions and arrive at a diplomatic solution,” Bin Zayed tweeted after the meeting.
Luciano Zaccara, a research associate professor of Gulf Politics at Qatar University's Gulf Studies Center, notes that the goal of Bin Zayed's visit to Moscow was to try and find a diplomatic solution to Russia’s war on Ukraine in order to avoid further escalation.
"This goes together with the fact that the UAE has increased its engagement in Afghanistan and other scenarios in which the UAE is trying to show diplomatic and mediation muscle," he told The Media Line.
He added that the UAE is interested in showing Russia that it is not taking sides in the conflict and that, despite its strategic links with the US, it is still eager to expand relations with Moscow.
Dr. Steven Wright, associate professor of International Relations and an associate dean for Student Affairs at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, pointed out that – given the symbiotic, political and economic relations between China and Russia – the ties between the UAE and Russia encourage closer relations with China, which is crucial for the Emirati agenda.
"The first pillar of the Dubai 50-year strategy is to position itself as a transit point in trade relations between East and West," he told The Media Line.
Strategically, Wright continued, the key question revolves around how global centers of political influence and economic power are progressing. "What we are saying is that states such as the UAE are seeing that we are entering a tipping point, in which we will see the global power balance shift to the East," he said.
“It is on that basis that there appears to be a focus on positioning the country for the future based on that strategic calculation,” he concluded.
The Bin Zayed-Putin meeting comes just days after the OPEC+, the organization of the globe's oil-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, decided to cut its daily oil production by 2%. The decision angered the United States, because it allows Russia to control oil market prices and earn profits which fund its war effort against Ukraine, as consumer prices rise due to the reduced availability of oil. This harms Western oil importers, including the European Union, which already are in an energy crisis due to the sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
Wright noted that, since the Obama administration, the steadfastness of the United States commitment to the Gulf region has been increasingly questioned. This is not only due to the change of the energy situation in the United States as it became a net oil exporter in 2018 and less reliant on Gulf imports, but also because the US is now perceived in the region as an undependable security guarantor.
On the other hand, ties with China are becoming a priority for the UAE. In the economic realm, it is China that has emerged as the main global power within the region, according to Wright. "While the United States has the most significant military footprint through defense agreements within the Gulf region, it is clear that China is the region's main trading partner," he said.
Zaccara does not believe the US is losing too much influence within the Gulf Cooperation Council states. However, he says that it is true that its members are more interested in diversifying their allegiances while maintaining a neutral stance in certain conflicts.
The UAE does have strategic interests in Central Asia, and a degree of cooperation with Russia will further them, added Wright. "For some time now, the UAE has been developing a strategic economic and political presence in central Asia and having a degree of coordination with Russia over that theater of operations. It will both help free up Russian resources and further the UAE’s presence within Central Asia," he said.
When it comes to Russian motivations for Putin’s meeting with Bin Zayed, both analysts agree that this is a bid by Moscow to shore up energy prices, as Russia is dealing with a vastly depleted market following its invasion of Ukraine in February.
“The war is opening new opportunities for the GCC states to replace Russia as gas and oil provider,” Zaccara said, pointing to a move by the oil-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to take advantage of Russia’s unpopularity in the West due to its attack on its neighbor.
Nonetheless, he says, it behooves the Gulf states to cooperate with Russia on oil prices. “Any improvement in relations between Russia and the GCC in general would contribute to stabilizing oil and gas markets,” he said.
Wright agrees. “Cooperation with Gulf countries [on] OPEC pricing clearly benefits Russia. This trend is likely to continue, especially as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to monetize their reserves in the context of the global energy transition to greener sources of power. As the UAE expands its presence in central Asia, it will help free up Russian resources,” he said.