Why Vladimir Putin will find an Abu Dhabi transformed

Much has changed since the Russian leader's 2007 visit

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) engage in talks at the Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi. Putin is accompanied on the trip by the director of arms exporter Rosoboronexport, as well as those of the airline Aeroflot and space agency Roskosmos.        AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / DMITRY ASTAKHOV (Photo by DMITRY ASTAKHOV / POOL / AFP)
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The Russian president will touch down in the UAE on Tuesday in a landmark visit that will deepen an already close relationship between the two countries.

Vladimir Putin will arrive in Abu Dhabi around midday to a welcome reserved for the UAE’s closest partners.

Mr Putin's trip comes 12 years after his last state visit, which was the first by a Russian leader since diplomatic relations were established with the former Soviet Union in December 1971.

Tuesday’s visit represents a chance for both sides to reflect on that historic trip in 2007.

At the time, Mr Putin was nearing the end of his first term in office but considered the visit, which included a stop in Saudi Arabia, as a way to find common ground on issues from trade to tackling extremism.

President Sheikh Khalifa bestowed the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian honour, on Mr Putin. In turn, he thanked Sheikh Khalifa for allowing a Russian Orthodox Church to be built in Sharjah. The 20,000 capacity St Philip the Apostle Orthodox Church opened in 2011 and is the largest such place of worship in the Arabian Gulf.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan (R) presents the country's highest award, the Zayed Order, to Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi. Putin is accompanied on the trip by the director of arms exporter Rosoboronexport, as well as those of the airline Aeroflot and space agency Roskosmos.        RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / DMITRY ASTAKHOV / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DMITRY ASTAKHOV
Sheikh Khalifa presents the country's highest award, the Order of Zayed, to Vladimir Putin in 2007 at Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi. Ria Novosti / Kremlin Pool / Dmitry Astakhov 

The year would get even better for Mr Putin with Time magazine naming him "person of the year" for bringing renewed status to Russia. More than a decade later, Mr Putin continues to expand Russia's global voice.

For the UAE too, much has changed. Back in 2007 there was no Louvre Abu Dhabi or Yas Island. Archive photographs show Mr Putin at Emirates Palace but flickers of old Abu Dhabi could be seen everywhere. White and gold taxis still ferried people across town, directions were given through a complex system of landmarks while motorists did not have the option of using Sheikh Zayed Bridge.

But when he lands at Abu Dhabi airport tomorrow, Mr Putin will find a city transformed. First, a huge new airport terminal shimmers in the distance. And, as Mr Putin's convoy crosses the city, he will see first-hand the massive expansion in the years since. New luxury hotels, golf courses and theme parks have turned the capital into a global city that stayed true to its heritage. Revitalised historic forts such as Qasr Al Hosn show how life was lived before oil, while Wahat Al Karama, a poignant memorial to Emirati soldiers killed in action, opened in 2016 and underlines the recent sacrifices made by the UAE.

Preparations are already well under way across the country to welcome Mr Putin with UAE and Russian flags fluttering in the breeze on the Corniche.

He will travel to Abu Dhabi from Saudi Arabia along with a delegation of officials, ministers and government representatives.

Trade between the UAE and Russia reached Dh12.5bn in 2018, while more than 3,000 Russian companies are registered across the emirates.

At least 15 deals are expected to be signed across space, technology and defence. But this trip is no mere trade mission. Leonid Slutsky, head of Russian Parliament’s committee on internal affairs, said it was a chance for Mr Putin to catch up with his friend, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

“Vladimir Putin and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed talk all the time,” said Mr Slutsky. “They are good friends.”

Today about 30,000 Russians call the UAE home, more than 100 flights a week connect both countries, while a million Russians visit this country every year buoyed by the introduction of visa-free travel.

Much of this owes a debt to that trip in 2007.