Navigating the UAE’s Geopolitical Web: Economic Interests, Regional Stability, and Accountability

In early September, officials from the US, the EU, and the UK visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of a broader effort with partner countries to discuss sanctions and measures to prevent electronic parts from reaching Russia. The UAE highlighted its export control framework during this visit, but it appears that the exports of electronic parts from the UAE to Russia have increased significantly. Russian customs data analyzed by the Free Russia Foundation reveals a sevenfold increase, reaching almost $283 million in 2022. This surge includes a fifteenfold increase in microchip exports, many of which are manufactured in the US, and the export of 158 drones to Russia.

The influx of wealthy Russian immigrants, often seeking to evade US sanctions, has also impacted Dubai’s property market. Furthermore, over 100 aircraft, including a $250 million Boeing 787 Dreamliner belonging to former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, have been grounded at Dubai Al Maktoum International Airport due to US and EU prohibitions on insuring or maintaining these aircraft.

While the UAE has benefited economically from this boom in Russian trade, it has also led to concerns about the UAE’s relationship with Russia. The US Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, Elizabeth Rosenberg, has referred to the UAE as a “country of focus” under investigation for its ties to Russia.

The increase in Russian trade extends both ways, with the UAE buying a record 60 million barrels of Russian oil and $4 billion of Russian gold in the past year. This robust trade relationship has raised questions about the UAE’s role in facilitating such transactions.

The UAE’s President, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), has been at the center of various geopolitical interventions that appear to run counter to key Western interests and regional stability. In Yemen, the UAE aims to separate the north from the south, control Aden’s strategic port, and dominate the island of Socotra. These actions have strained relations with neighboring Saudi Arabia and Oman.

In Sudan, the UAE backed the warlord Lt. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s attempt to seize power, leading to a civil war that has killed thousands and displaced millions. In Libya, the UAE supported warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose failed attempt to seize Tripoli in 2019 has left the country permanently divided and destabilized.

These interventions, often driven by economic interests and power projection, have had dire humanitarian consequences. MBZ’s focus on power projection and regional influence has led to an array of conflicts and instability, resulting in a growing number of displaced people in countries like Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and Yemen.

Gold appears to be a common thread connecting these conflicts. Hemeti, a Sudanese warlord backed by the UAE, generated personal wealth by exploiting Sudan’s illegal gold mines, with a significant portion of the gold trade passing through Abu Dhabi. The US Treasury has imposed sanctions on individuals linked to these activities.

The UAE’s role in supporting various actors across the Middle East and North Africa, often to the detriment of regional stability, has raised concerns among Western allies. MBZ’s policies have been marked by pragmatism, such as supporting the Haqqani network in Afghanistan to limit Qatar’s influence over moderate Taliban factions. In Afghanistan, the UAE has positioned itself to play a significant role in the post-Taliban era, including managing Kabul airport.

While the US and European nations grapple with these developments, tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been brewing. Differences in regional interests, especially regarding Yemen and ports, have strained the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and MBZ.

Despite sporadic meetings and discussions between MBS and MBZ, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE persists, with both countries vying for influence in the region as the US presence in the Gulf recedes.

As MBZ continues to exert his influence and navigate complex geopolitical dynamics, the risks and consequences of his actions may eventually catch up with him. His power projection and interventions, often driven by economic interests, have left a trail of instability and displacement in their wake. While he has enjoyed relative freedom from international constraints, the growing humanitarian toll of these conflicts demands closer scrutiny and diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of instability in the region.

The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs recognizes the complex web of geopolitical dynamics at play in the Middle East and North Africa, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) emerging as a key player in regional affairs. While the UAE has reaped economic benefits from its engagement with Russia and its involvement in various conflicts, the consequences of its actions extend far beyond economic gains.

The surge in Russian trade, including significant increases in electronic parts exports, raises questions about the UAE’s commitment to international sanctions and its role as a conduit for evading restrictions. This trade relationship, coupled with the influx of wealthy Russian immigrants, has placed the UAE under scrutiny from US and EU authorities, highlighting the need for transparency and accountability in its economic dealings.

Moreover, the UAE’s interventions in Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere have contributed to instability and humanitarian crises, underscoring the imperative for a more responsible approach to regional affairs. The pursuit of power projection and economic interests should not come at the expense of human lives and regional stability.

As the US presence in the Gulf region evolves, and as regional rivalries intensify, it is crucial for the international community to closely monitor and engage with the UAE’s actions and policies. Diplomatic efforts should aim to address the root causes of instability and displacement, prioritize human rights, and uphold international norms and sanctions.

The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs urges policymakers and stakeholders to remain vigilant, recognizing that the UAE’s actions can have far-reaching consequences for regional and global security. Balancing economic interests with responsible and ethical foreign policy is paramount, as the world navigates the intricate geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa.


  • NYCFPA Editorial

    The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) is a policy, research, and educational organization headquartered in New York State with an office in Washington D.C. NYCFPA is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, institution devoted to conducting in-depth research and analysis on every aspect of American foreign policy and its impact around the world. The organization is funded by individual donors. The organization receives no corporate or government donations.

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