Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
On February 17, the United Arab Emirates’ Embassy in Moscow announced that UAE citizens traveling to Russia would be exempted from advance visa applications and allowed to obtain their visas upon arrival. This announcement signaled yet another step toward improved Russia-UAE relations since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a strategic partnership with Abu Dhabi in June 2018.
Russia-UAE relations have blossomed in the economic and defense spheres; however, Moscow and Abu Dhabi have struggled to extend this cooperation to the diplomatic arena. While Russia and the UAE’s interests temporarily coincided in Yemen when both countries saw former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as Yemen’s best hope for stability, the UAE’s military assistance to Southern Yemeni separatist groups may not sit well alongside Russia’s strong support for Yemen’s territorial integrity. In addition, the UAE’s overt support for the Libyan National Army and General Khalifa Hifter runs counter to Russia’s more cautious balancing strategy in the country, and prevents Moscow and Abu Dhabi from working together on the stabilization of Libya.
On Syria, however, the UAE’s current position shares more common ground with Russia’s than any other Gulf Arab country, except Oman, which – in keeping with its policy of neutrality and engagement with all regional parties – maintained an embassy in Damascus throughout the Syrian civil war. Although the UAE officially opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s retention of power, Abu Dhabi distinguished itself from Saudi Arabia and Qatar by refusing to support armed Islamist opposition groups in Syria. The UAE’s willingness to accept Assad as a legitimate president of postwar Syria also generally aligns with the objectives of Russian-led peace talks in Astana and Sochi, which seek to entrench Assad’s hegemony over Syria through a secular authoritarian constitutional framework.
The synergies between Russia’s and the UAE’s positions on Syria became apparent by 2018, as Russia lobbied Arab governments to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus. The UAE had already decided to do so and was restrained only by U.S. objections. In June, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash stated that Syria’s exclusion from the Arab League restricted the ability of Arab countries to influence the situation in Syria. Gargash also distinguished the UAE from its Gulf Arab counterparts, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, by supporting Assad’s return to the Arab League. The UAE’s subsequent decision on December 27 to reopen its embassy in Damascus was a notable boost for Russia’s Syria strategy, as it reassured Russian policymakers that their pro-Assad policies would not strain Moscow’s strengthening strategic partnership with the UAE.
The timing of the UAE’s normalization of relations with Damascus and the pledged U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which was no coincidence, resonated in Moscow, and was understood as reflecting the Emirati view that further U.S. disengagement from the Middle East requires enhanced cooperation with Russia, especially on Syria. Establishing closer relations with Damascus, at a time when Assad is seeking to convert his military successes into enhanced international legitimacy, also reflects the UAE’s commitment to secular Arab governance and could give Abu Dhabi privileged access to postconflict investment opportunities.
The Russia-UAE partnership is based on more than just a shared recognition of Assad’s staying power, however, as both countries also hold common views on the need to vanquish Islamist movements and the importance of protecting Syrian Kurds from Turkish military aggression. The UAE’s increased interest in participating in Syria’s reconstruction also aligns with Russia’s needs. Moscow has appealed for international capital to support Assad-led rebuilding initiatives and compensate for the resource limitations that have hamstrung its own ability to revive the Syrian economy.
Defeating Islamist extremist movements in Syria has been the longest standing area of commonality between Russia and the UAE. During their meeting in June, Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan called for greater bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism and the creation of a “broad international coalition on the war on terror based on respect for the sovereignty of states.” As numerous Islamist groups opposed to Assad are viewed as terrorist entities by both Russia and the UAE, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), the Syrian civil war is an important test case for this counterterrorism cooperation agenda.
The UAE’s ambassador to Russia from 2009 to 2017, Omar Ghobash, who now serves as UAE ambassador to France, has argued that Moscow was able to separate moderate Islamists from extremists more effectively than the United States was, and expressed solidarity with Russia’s rhetorical concern for the plight of Christians in areas of Syria under occupation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Ghobash’s perspectives continue to shape Abu Dhabi’s thinking on counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Syria: Gargash’s April 2018 statement that the UAE faced a choice between aligning with either Assad or the Islamist opposition forces is basically compatible with Russia’s own binary perspective of the conflict.
While the UAE expressed concern in September 2018 about a potential Russia-led military escalation in Idlib, it has not publicly disagreed with Moscow’s description of the city as a “hotbed of terrorism,” and has confined its critiques of counterterrorism operations in Idlib to humanitarian concerns. The UAE’s increasing agreement with Russia on Syria also gives Abu Dhabi a chance to undermine Moscow’s strengthening security partnership with Qatar, as the UAE has alleged that Doha’s hostage release payments bankrolled Jabhat al-Nusra’s activities in Syria.
In addition to their mutual commitment to oppose Syrian Islamist movements, Russia and the UAE are united in their opposition to potential Turkish attacks on Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria. Since Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 and carried out an offensive against the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin, the UAE has claimed that Ankara’s conduct constitutes a collective security threat and has criticized its attempts to create a buffer zone in northeastern Syria. Russia initially supported Turkey’s military activities in Afrin but has since urged Ankara to return the territory to the Syrian government and discouraged Turkey from planning future offensives in northeastern Syria.
This synergy in perspectives is rooted in Russia and the UAE’s desire to maintain a secular state in Syria, which they may both believe can be best achieved through a federal-state compromise between Assad and the Syrian Democratic Forces and other moderate opposition groups. As Russia says it wants Assad to refrain from further military incursions into territories held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which could delay a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, and the UAE wants to showcase its conflict arbitration prowess in Syria, both countries have encouraged dialogue between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Assad.
Although increasingly shared threat perceptions are the main driver of Russia-UAE cooperation in Syria, Russia also welcomes the UAE’s efforts to invest in Syria’s reconstruction. Since the Russian military’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov wrote a letter to his U.S. counterpart General Joseph Dunford on July 19, 2018 about the need for U.S. investment in Syria’s reconstruction process, Russia has attempted to raise funds for the rebuilding of Syria. Russia’s fundraising efforts have failed to gain traction, as the United States, European Union, and Saudi Arabia have all categorically rejected making large-scale investments in Syria, while China has been ambiguous about the extent of its commitment to the rebuilding process.
In comparison, Abu Dhabi began discussing Syria’s reconstruction in October 2012 and held investment talks with Assad-aligned businessmen on January 20, 2019. The UAE’s willingness to invest in Syria is primarily rooted in its desire to convince Assad to expel Iran from southern Syria or at least drive a wedge between the two parties. The UAE’s aspirations align with Russia’s objectives, as Putin has accepted Iran’s presence in Syria, and encouraged Turkish-Iranian cooperation in Syria, after Russia previously urged Iran to avoid establishing a long-term base in the country. These common interests suggest that Russia and the UAE could cooperate on the reconstruction process, with Abu Dhabi providing investment and Moscow using its ground presence in Syria to carry out rebuilding contracts, as hostilities diminish.
Although the UAE does not share Russia’s enthusiasm about Assad’s retention of power, Abu Dhabi’s opposition to Islamist movements in Syria, solidarity with the Syrian Kurds against Turkey, and desire to invest in Syria’s reconstruction all align neatly with Moscow’s objectives. As Saudi Arabia and Qatar waver on resuming formal diplomatic recognition of Assad’s government, the UAE is poised to emerge as Russia’s most important Gulf Arab partner on Syria.
is a doctoral candidate in the Department of International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a geopolitical analyst and commentator, who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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