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Russia’s Putin is visiting the UAE and Saudi Arabia, seeking to bolster Moscow’s Mideast clout

Putin has sought to boost Russia’s profile as a power broker in the conflict in the Middle East and challenge Washington, casting the war as a failure of U.S. diplomacy

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed
President of the UAE Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk during a meeting at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, UAE December 6, 2023.SPUTNIK (via REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday before departing for Saudi Arabia in a one-day lightning tour intended to raise Moscow’s profile as a Middle East power broker, even as his war in Ukraine grinds on.

Putin landed in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, that is hosting the United Nations’ COP28 climate talks. It was his first trip to the region since before the coronavirus pandemic and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking at the start of his talks with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Putin offered to discuss energy cooperation, the conflict in the Middle East and the “Ukrainian crisis.” He praised the current state of Russia’s relations with the UAE and congratulated the country for hosting the COP28 climate talks.

Putin, who has limited his foreign travel since sending troops into invade Ukraine, visited China in October and made several trips to former Soviet nations in recent months. He faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court over the war in Ukraine.

Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia has signed the ICC founding treaty, meaning they don’t face an obligation to detain Putin over the warrant accusing him of being personally responsible for the abductions of children from Ukraine during the war. Putin skipped a summit in South Africa amid speculation he could be arrested on arrival.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s foreign minister, met a smiling Putin after he bounded down the stairs of his presidential plane. Four Su-35 fighter jets had escorted it all the way from Russia, landing at Abu Dhabi’s commercial airport, since Al-Dhafra Air Base is a major U.S. military hub in the region.

Although the UAE is a U.S. ally, it has close ties with Russia. It greeted Putin at Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al-Watan palace with a 21-gun salute and a flyby of UAE military jets trailing smoke in the colors of the Russian flag.

“I’m happy to meet you again,” Sheikh Mohammed said as he sat with Putin. He later issued a statement saying they discussed “the importance of strengthening dialogue and cooperation to ensure stability and progress.”

The pageantry in the Emirates, which relies on the U.S. as its major security partner, highlights the UAE’s expansive business ties to Russia that have expanded since grinding Western sanctions targeted Moscow. Russian commentators have said the UAE is a key avenue for Russia to skirt the sanctions.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Putin is scheduled to meet with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are key participants in international efforts to negotiate a settlement to the Israel-Hamas war. Putin has close personal ties with both rulers.

Putin has sought to boost Russia’s profile as a power broker in the conflict in the Middle East and challenge Washington, casting the war as a failure of U.S. diplomacy. He has suggested Moscow could be a mediator, thanks to its friendly ties with both Israel and the Palestinians.

Putin is set to continue his diplomacy Thursday by hosting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in the Kremlin.

The Israel-Hamas war remains a major concern for the Mideast, particularly the UAE, which reached a diplomatic recognition with Israel in 2020. Recent attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels also threatens commercial shipping in the Red Sea as Iran’s nuclear program continues its rapid advances since the collapse of the 2016 nuclear deal.

Russia is part of OPEC+, which is a group of cartel members and other nations that have managed production to try and boost crude oil prices. Last week, the group expanded some output cuts into next year and brought up-and-coming oil supplier Brazil into the fold. Benchmark Brent crude traded Wednesday around $77 a barrel, down from nearly $100 in September, over concerns about a weakening economy worldwide.

The visit comes after a parade of Western leaders including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and others backing Ukraine spoke at COP28.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power made a point to tour Ukraine’s pavilion at COP28.

Speaking to journalists later, Kerry said after being asked about Putin: “Other than you’re mentioning him here, I’d sort of forgotten he might be coming to the region.”

“I think by virtue of what he’s done in Ukraine, his presence may encourage people to do what Europe has done, which is the most rapid move to a different kind of fuel as a result of his actions,” Kerry said. “He’s single handedly accelerated the transformation of Europe more than anybody else by weaponizing gas.”

Ukrainians on hand for the COP28 event expressed outrage over Putin being in the country at the same time they described him as committing environmental crimes in their country.

“It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a worker at the Ukrainian pavilion at the COP28 climate summit, wiping away tears. “Seeing how people let people like him in the big events, ... treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical in my opinion.”

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