The Russian ruler Vladimir Putin arrives in the United Arab Emirates today, his second visit since 2007, a testament to the growing strategic relations between the two countries. There are many issues to be discussed, with counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism among the most important.
Economics is one element of the burgeoning U.A.E.-Russia relationship. In 2018, there was trade worth 12.5 billion Dirham (just over three billion euros) between the two states, comprised in part of the 3,000 Russian companies based in he Emirates and the thriving tourism sector, which sees nearly one-million Russians travel to the U.A.E. each year and an increasing number of people going the other way. A notable expansion in economic cooperation has happened in the area of technology.
Politics, however, always takes precedence over economics, and when Putin meets with Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the U.A.E. Armed Forces informally known as “MBZ”, it will be to survey the incredibly delicate situation of the Middle East region, where radicalism and radical actors are on the rise.
The two sides will doubtless talk about Iran and the rising tensions with America. The U.A.E. exerted strong efforts over the summer to guide matters back towards diplomacy, order, and peace, when it seemed they might drift to conflict.
As part of its commitment to order and peace, the U.A.E. has made countering the scourge of Islamism a cornerstone of its regional policy. To do this, Abu Dhabi has employed both hard and soft power.
An example of hard power can be seen in Libya, where the U.A.E. is supporting (as is Russia) an effort by General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) to suppress the chaos and extremism in Tripoli in order to bring order to the country and stop it being used as a launchpad for destabilising effects on its neighbours.
The U.A.E. has also waged an ideological war on the Islamists, and this “softer” element was perhaps best summed up by having the Pope of Rome visit in February, the first pontiff to step foot on the soil of the Arabian Gulf. Thereafter, Pope Francis ministered to the Emirates’ Christian minority.
Russia recognises the U.A.E.’s importance to peace and stability. “Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan is one of the main leaders, not only in the Gulf region, but in the entire Arab world”, Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs, told Gulf News in Moscow. “He is playing a very positive role in the region. There is going to be some frank discussion between the two leaders in Abu Dhabi”.
Russia knows well the problem of Islamist militancy. In the recent past, Moscow has fought two bloody wars with Islamist insurgents in Chechnya, who tried to wrest that republic away from the Russian Federation, and coped with a wave of terrorist attacks in its major cities—from apartment bombings to school sieges.
Having defeated the extremist insurrection in Chechnya, a new, more moderate government was installed led by Ramzan Kadyrov, and he has been instrumental in Putin’s outreach to the Muslim world. Russia has had some lingering resentment directed at it from Muslims because of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, and especially after the controversial Russian intervention in Syria this has intensified, despite Russia insisting it only went to Syria to battle extremists linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Kadyrov has helped change the narrative about Russia being hostile to Islam. Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayed has become friendly with Kadyrov, as has the de facto ruler in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Together they have worked to foster the Muslim faith as it was conceived, before political extremists got hold of it.
The important and growing strategic bonds between the U.A.E. and Russia are very important, particularly where they can help to strip Islam of the perversions that so frequently lead to the tragic events we see in our media every day. Today’s meeting will begin to chart a way forward.