Putin to visit UAE amid fears it has become hub to evade Western sanctions

Vladimir Putin has invested time and resources in preserving his relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, says think tank
Vladimir Putin has invested time and resources in preserving his relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, says a think tank - SPUTNIK/REUTERS

Vladimir Putin will travel to the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday amid concern in the West that it has become a sanctions-busting hub for Russian oil and money.

Both Britain and the EU have dispatched diplomats to ensure the tens of thousands of Russians who have poured into the UAE, especially Dubai, are not using it as a springboard to evade Western sanctions.

The UAE, which is hosting the Cop28 climate change summit in Dubai, has insisted it restricts the export and re-export of dual-use products that could be used for military purposes to conflict zones.

Putin has not travelled beyond China, Iran and former Soviet Union states since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine last February.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March over the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine, putting a large part of the world out of his reach.

Saudi Arabia, which he will also visit on Wednesday, and the UAE are not signatories to the ICC’s founding Rome treaty, meaning the countries are not expected to arrest Putin and hand him over to The Hague for trial.

‘Putin has embraced Mohammed bin Salman’

Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Putin has invested time and resources in preserving his relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE and, of course, the respective leaders.

“Putin has made it a point of embracing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when the West had marginalised him in the aftermath of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

“Mohammed bin Salman has repaid him with preserving coordination on energy policies, that has almost an existential value for Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine. The UAE instead offered Russia a way out from full isolation, by scaling up trade relations and keeping Moscow in the loop of regional politics.”

UK, US and EU officials have held talks with the UAE, as well as Turkey and Kazakhstan, in an effort to close down alternative routes for Russia to secure computer chips and electronic components for battlefield use.

The Middle Eastern country has experienced a spike in trade with Russia in those products, sources said, citing trade data.

Western sources said they believed the talks with the UAE had yielded positive results, with its government agreeing to tighten controls on transit shipments into Russia.

UAE ‘recognises risks to its reputation’

“I think they are recognising the pressure, the risks to reputation but also the risk of US secondary sanctions,” one said.

One tactic used to convince countries to help tackle Russia’s circumvention of sanctions is to share trade intelligence that proves Moscow is using them as a springboard to evade the punitive measures.

The Middle Eastern countries have attempted to position themselves as mediators in Putin’s war on Ukraine.

It was announced on Tuesday that six Ukrainian children will be returned home from Russia in a deal brokered by Qatar.

It is the second part of a Qatar-mediated deal for the return of children, after four minors were returned in October.

The children are among thousands Ukraine says have been forcibly removed to Russia or Russian-held territory.

“Building on the momentum of recent weeks, Qatar continues to play a mediating role between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, successfully facilitating the reunification of six additional Ukrainian children with their families in time for the festive holidays,” Lolwah Al-Khater, Qatar’s minister of state for international co-operation, said.

Saudi Arabia previously convened an international peace summit, inviting some 40 countries for talks in Jeddah, while its crown prince held talks with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and mediated a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia last year that secured the release of British and American citizens.

The UAE also played a role in the release of American basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug-smuggling charges by Russia.

The Kremlin said Putin would discuss bilateral relations, oil and international affairs on the “working visit” to the two countries in a single day and will hold negotiations with the Saudi crown prince.

‘Very important’ talks with Saudi Arabia

Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, told Shot, a Russian channel on the Telegram messaging app, the talks in Saudi Arabia would be “very important”.

“I hope these negotiations will be very useful,” he added.

The trip is part of a flurry of diplomatic activities by Putin this week, with the Russian leader also expected to host Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin’s meetings come amid signs of waning Western support for Ukraine and suggestions Kyiv is being urged to consider peace talks to end the war.

Zelensky vows to keep Ukraine fighting

Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin daily newspaper, citing an anonymous, high-ranking source, reported that Russia would not be opposed to holding talks with Ukraine in a European country, such as Hungary.

Mr Zelensky has vowed to keep Ukraine fighting to expel its Russian invaders.

In an interview last week, he insisted he was not under pressure from Kyiv’s allies to negotiate with Russia, but acknowledged “some voices are always heard”.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have signed up to international sanctions on Russia in a bid to starve Putin’s war machine of much-needed funds in Ukraine.

The US has targeted companies and individuals in the UAE it has accused of abetting Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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