Putin visit opens a new chapter in bilateral relations with the UAE

The Russian president's last trip in 2007 paved the way for enduring ties and the north-south corridor linking the two

UAE & Russian flags decorated the corniche street in Abu Dhabi. The UAE celebrates Hazza Al Mansouri arrvial to the country today, along with backup astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the UAE cements the growing partnership between the two countries. That process began in earnest in 2007 when Mr Putin first visited the UAE.

As outlined by Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's former prime minister and the author of Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War, the 2007 visit was a masterstroke in Russian diplomacy. It accelerated a process we are now witnessing. Mr Putin's previous visit to the Emirates to establish a north-south corridor between the Gulf and Russia was an important pathway for trade and society. The notion behind that visit was that over time, the growth of relations between the two would equate to a superhighway that would allow Russia and the UAE to expand their mutual interests.

At the time, Russia's desire for a greater presence in the Gulf manifested in a new stage of bilateral relations. The Kremlin wanted to play a more proactive role in the region and to be receptive and interactive to new models of development on the Arabian Peninsula and especially the UAE. For once, there was truth in that old saying "the Russians are coming".

The north-south corridor is historical in nature, dating back to imperial Russia in terms of establishing greater reach into the Near East, and has implications for the current and future relations between the regions. Its other effect is in the political and economic sphere, which involves many different areas of possible investment, including energy, railways and trade between both countries. The development of this north-south corridor plays an important part in linking the two regions in a robust supply chain network.

The implication of Mr Putin's 2007 visit to the UAE was that over time the growth of these relations would turn into a superhighway that would allow Russia and the UAE to expand their mutual interests into Africa and South Asia

In Abu Dhabi, Mubadala’s lead in investing in key Russian industries helped establish ties between the two countries. Other UAE investment firms see this as a model to emulate in the near term, thereby building the ties that bind. DP World and other UAE entities are now involved in Russia, especially in the country’s far north. Their interests continue to grow over time to involve ports, maritime trade and logistics — areas at the heart of Emirati identity.

In 2007, Mr Putin signed economic, cultural, and military deals with the UAE as well as instigating access to Russia's space launch facilities in Kazakhstan and laying the first foundation stone for the first Russian Orthodox Church in the Arabian Peninsula, in Sharjah.

In terms of military affairs, Russia is increasingly involved in the UAE’s International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex). The next biennial event is likely to feature an impressive array of new Russian technology to counter drones and new technological threats. These threats are increasingly becoming the same for both Russia and UAE and pull both countries together in a nexus. The outcomes we see today are founded on the 2007 visit that launched the trajectory of how Russia and the UAE view the world, in terms of closer interaction and co-operation.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, shares a close personal relationship with the Russian president and has visited his country multiple times. The UAE and Russia have signed partnership agreements in the past few years, which have helped lead to this moment.

Twelve years on from Mr Putin's last visit, the UAE’s first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, visited the International Space Station with the help of Russian expertise and technology. Now Russia wants to work with the UAE to build a spaceport in the Emirates, boosting the ability of the two countries to explore space, especially in terms of the UAE’s Mars mission but also in other space-related scientific efforts.

In terms of religion and culture, the building of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sharjah helped foster cross-cultural bonds. It was further evidence of the countries' mutual vision and respect for each other's roots in faith.

Russia’s vision involving spiritual sovereignty, great national wealth in minerals and energy, plus its swing to China and the rest of the Far East, is a powerful draw for the UAE. The momentum of the corridor between Russia and the UAE represents a bridge between two civilisations and establishes a new model for Russian-Middle Eastern relations.

Cross-cultural ties featuring arts, dance and music are becoming more common as a tool to bridge cultural understanding. Some of Russia’s finest art and musical traditions are now part of the UAE’s art scene. Both countries have rich heritage and cultural traditions that are becoming part of the growing partnership between the two countries.

Both Russia and the UAE want to increase tourism between the two countries. Over the past decade, Russian and UAE airlines have expanded their connections between both countries. Russia’s hosting of the World Cup last year saw increased numbers of passengers travelling from the UAE.

Bilateral trade between the UAE and Russia reached Dh12.5 billion last year and is growing, with Mr Putin's visit set to boost it considerably. For Russia, the UAE is the perfect hub. With Expo 2020 Dubai coming up, a surge in tourism to the UAE is imminent. This growth is a far cry from the days of shuttle flights between various Russian cities and the UAE. The increase in aviation is a result of the relaxing of visa regulations between both countries. Naturally, tourism has a knock-on effect on business and an expansion of trade.

As Mr Putin boarded his plane once again to return to Moscow last night, Russia and the UAE can look forward to the next chapter in a shared vision that is set to lead to many more projects to come.

Dr Theodore Karasik is an expert in international affairs in Washington DC with a focus on the Middle East and Russia