The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been in the crosshairs of the United States and the European Union for its continued links to Russia, frustrating the West’s efforts to squeeze Moscow economically in response to its war on Ukraine. But now, some possible adjustments in Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy could slightly change the picture amid rising concerns that Israel’s war on Gaza could spread across the region.
In early September, representatives from the United Kingdom, EU and US visited the UAE to voice their concerns about the Gulf country’s links to Russia.
Specifically, these Western governments have tried to prevent the Russians from accessing certain dual-use products such as computer chips and electronic components that can be used to strengthen the Russian war machine.
Earlier this year, Washington warned the UAE, Oman, and Turkey against evading sanctions and export controls imposed on Moscow last year. Then in April, the US imposed sanctions on two UAE-based entities: Aeromotus Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Trading LLC and Hulm Al Sahra Electric Devices Trading.
According to the Treasury Department, Aeromotus had sent several drones and robotics technology to Russian importers following the outbreak of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Washington sanctioned Hulm Al Sahra for allegedly sending roughly $190,000 worth of semiconductors, which were from the US and subject to US export controls, as well as machinery, electronics and optics to Russian companies in the second half of 2022.
Shortly after the Western officials’ September visit to the UAE, Bloomberg News reported that Emirati authorities were considering introducing export licenses on certain technologies, including semiconductors.
Abu Dhabi has yet to impose these measures. Any such move, should it happen, will be not only because of mounting pressures from the West, but also because of growing threats of the Israel-Hamas war spilling into other parts of the Middle East. In that scenario, the UAE would want to shore up ties with its ultimate security guarantor, the US, according to experts.
“If the UAE does introduce export licenses, it would be an indicator that it sees the costs of not complying with Western demands as exceeding the benefits of at least some of its trade with Russia,” said Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“It would also be an indicator that the UAE does not want to damage its relations with the US, especially when the possibility of a wider Middle Eastern conflict including Iran is brewing and the UAE would want to have American protection against Tehran,” he said.
With the COP28 set to kick off later this month, the UAE wants as much calm as possible in the neighbourhood.
‘Under pressure from the West’
Even if the UAE introduces any export control licenses, it is not clear how much of a problem this would create in Emirati-Russian relations.
“Moscow is likely to understand that the UAE would be making this move under pressure from the West. Further, this move might only reduce, not eliminate, UAE-Russia cooperation. Moscow would want to preserve what cooperation it can with the UAE,” Katz said.
Perhaps such export licenses could help advance Abu Dhabi’s interests – both in terms of its reputation as a trade hub in the Middle East and its national security concerns regarding the Russia-Iran entente.
“Introducing the export licenses would help reinforce the idea that the UAE is a reliable place to do business,” Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador to Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.
“The UAE has strong political and economic incentives to maintain good relations with the United States and the European Union. It is also undoubtedly suspicious of the burgeoning military alliance between Russia and Iran, and would want to protect its national security by preventing dual-use goods from ending up in Iranian hands.”
Officials in the UAE have concerns about Moscow’s deepening partnership with Tehran – partly because of the non-state actors that Tehran sponsors and partly because of its drone and ballistic missile activities – and are concerned about their potential to exacerbate the Middle East’s security crises.
Yet, taking cues from the West when it comes to relations with Russia would not be without certain risks for the UAE.
Russia has reportedly been sourcing drones and other weapons systems for its war in Ukraine from Iran. From Abu Dhabi’s standpoint, this dependence, combined with lower levels of cooperation with the UAE, might result in Russia tilting more towards Tehran when it comes to contentious issues in Emirati-Iranian relations, which could be problematic for the Emiratis.
“Moscow might not be above holding this out as a possibility to deter the UAE from further complying with Western sanctions against Russia,” he said.
However, some experts question if Abu Dhabi would actually introduce such export licenses to curry favour with Washington and other Western capitals.
“The UAE and other Gulf states have not been too enthusiastic about harming their relations with Russia,” Imad Harb, the director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
“If indeed the UAE imposes these controls, the decision would be for geopolitical reasons, specifically to appear that it abides by US and EU wishes. But even if it imposes controls, there are ways of going around them by companies and individuals who are most concerned about their business and commercial interests.”
According to Harb, the introduction of these export licenses probably won’t have too much of a negative effect on Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Moscow as he pointed to the two countries ability to work around such controls.
“The UAE can always arrange to sell the technology through Iran which has good relations with Russia and will probably be eager to help Moscow circumvent any sanctions,” he told Al Jazeera.