18 October 2019
- Russian President’s visit will boost bilateral ties, allowing Abu Dhabi to leverage Moscow’s links with Tehran to help calm regional tensions
- Combined with regional mediation efforts this will help drive steady improvements in UAE-Iran relations in coming months
- UAE’s continued involvement in Yemen and enduring ties with US and Saudi Arabia will however sustain risks of Iranian retaliatory attacks
Russian President Putin met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) on 15 October during a state visit to Abu Dhabi. The two leaders signed six agreements worth approximately USD 1.3 billion across the technology, health and energy sectors, and discussed the creation of a shared investment fund between Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company and Russian Direct Investment Fund to build a USD 2.8 billion pulp mill plant in north-west Russia. Separately, the Qatar–affiliated Middle East Eye news agency published a report on 13 October, quoting an anonymous Emirati security source, that UAE’s National Security Adviser and MbZ’s brother, Tahnoun bin Zayed, had visited Iran on a secret mission to de-escalate tensions. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif denied the reports on 15 October, however.
Russia’s regional influence has grown over recent years, and it is now an influential political actor in Libya and Syria – where Abu Dhabi has its own interests, including support for anti-Islamist forces – and enjoys strong ties with Iran and Egypt. In recognition of Moscow’s growing regional role, Gulf states have thus looked to strengthen ties with the Russian leadership. This has also coincided with a regional economic downturn, which has further incentivised more comprehensive partnerships with Russia. The UAE, for example, entered into a strategic partnership with Moscow in 2018, which covered cooperation across space, technology, defence and tourism industries. The agreements reached during Putin’s trip – which is only the second visit by a Russian leader to the Emirates since diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1971 – is thus a further sign of Abu Dhabi’s desire to strengthen bilateral relations, particularly in the economic sphere.
Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed of the UAE meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Image credit: The National
The developments also follow recent efforts by the UAE to de-escalate tensions with Iran. This has included Abu Dhabi’s approving of a bilateral UAE-Iran maritime security meeting in late July, and announcing a partial withdrawal of military forces from the Yemen conflict. Therefore, while reports of secret meetings between Emirati and Iranian officials have not been corroborated, such moves are plausible and would be in line with the Emirates’ efforts to curb tensions with Tehran. Indeed, Zarif’s denials of the claims do not preclude this, as they could plausibly have been intended to protect the secrecy of talks. Moreover, Iran’s President Rouhani said during a news conference on 15 October that the two countries have been holding talks and their relations have been improving. By strengthening relations with Russia now, Abu Dhabi therefore likely hopes to leverage Moscow’s ties with Tehran to further help its own efforts in curbing tensions with Iran.
The UAE will continue its diplomatic overtures to Iran, and will likely use the promise of investments to lobby Moscow to arbitrate between the countries. This, coupled with other regional moves to de-escalate tensions – such as Pakistani efforts to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia – will drive steady improvements in UAE-Iran relations in coming months. That said, the UAE’s continued involvement in Yemen, and its ties with Riyadh and Washington, which lead the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, will continue to sustain risks of Iranian retaliation against the UAE for the foreseeable future. Such retaliation will most likely target shipping and infrastructure in and around Emirati ports, as part of Tehran’s efforts to highlight its ability to disrupt oil exports transiting the Persian Gulf. Direct attacks on inland targets – including via Houthi missile and drone strikes – will be less likely, although these remain possible in the event of a major regional security deterioration, such as in the event of a US decision to strike Iran from Emirati bases in response to any future aggression orchestrated by Tehran.