According to British academic Matthew Hedges, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has deepened its friendship with the Russian Federation since Russia invaded Ukraine. A fact that taken together with the UAE joining the BRICS alliance, may prove to be a major test of the strength of the West to maintain hegemony over the world order.
Just in 2022, the UAE and Russia increased binational trade by a whopping 68 percent to $9 billion — that total includes $2.5 billion in semiconductor technologies like microchips. The UAE has rapidly become a principal conduit in Russia’s strategic supply chain, making it far more difficult for Ukraine to win its battle for survival or at least forge a truce. (READ MORE: It’s Not Easy Explaining America to Our Foreign Friends)
The UAE and Turkey head a short list of traditional Western allies that have refused U.S., UK, and EU demands to impose sanctions on Russia. Despite claims of neutrality, the UAE and Turkey have become magnets for Russian money and business fleeing increasingly hostile jurisdictions, actions that have led to sanctions against hundreds seeking to sell to Russia.
And for good reason. Western security is at stake, along with the future of all 15 nations that broke away from dominance by the old Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin still claims that all of Eastern Europe, which he calls the “near abroad,” must remain part of Russia’s exclusive “sphere of influence.” Under that doctrine, no Eastern European state would truly feel safe from the Russian bear should Putin’s ambitions not be contained.
New Tech Flows Into Russia
To date, the West has slowed but not stopped the flow of war material to its sworn enemy.
According to James O’Brien, who heads up the U.S. State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination, “Russia imported up to 90 percent of its electronics from countries part of the wealthy Group 7 democracies” before invading Ukraine. Today, that figure is closer to 30 percent.
The conflict in Ukraine began with tanks and foot soldiers raining down terror but bogging down quickly. It has evolved into a high-tech contest as both sides have rapidly innovated drone, surveillance, and strike technology to levels not imagined in prewar days. Casualties on both sides have grown as advanced, plentiful drones spot targets for artillery fire.
While Russia gets electronics components from Belarus and other friendlies, the brokerage of Western-developed weaponry through nations like the UAE is the greatest concern to Western powers. Loose controls over trans-shipments have kept Russia well supplied with some of the latest technology developed for Ukraine. (READ MORE: Ukraine Is Not Vietnam)
Emirati state entities Edge Group and G42 have brought large numbers of Russian engineers to work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Meanwhile, U.S. tech companies and military partners like Lockheed Martin and Microsoft continue to train the UAE’s Apache helicopter pilots and offer training in advanced cloud computing.
The ongoing leaks of intelligence and material have led to increased pressures, sanctions, and talk of more sanctions by Western powers. In 2022, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed the UAE on a 23-country “grey list” for failing to adequately combat sanctions evasion, terror financing, and money laundering — much of it by Russian nationals.
UAE Has Ties to Both Russia and the US
The UAE had long been a partner to the BRICS nations (of which Russia is a founding member), joining the BRICS New Development Bank in October 2021. The UAE government, in joining BRICS, emphasized its commitment to champion BRICS-style multilateralism.
But the UAE also has deep ties to the U.S., including investment of tens of billions of its sovereign wealth funds. The two nations have explored deeper trade cooperation, and the UAE, for 12 straight years, has been the region’s top market for American exports. U.S. exports to the UAE in 2020 totaled $14.75 billion and jumped to $11 billion in just the first half of 2021.
Hedges, freed after being sentenced to life in prison by the UAE in 2018, reported in May that the “Russian geospatial intelligence firm ScanEx had moved to the UAE” to supply high tech the West refused to make available. The UAE’s Project Raven, says Hedges, hacked journalists, attorneys, and politicians, leading many U.S. technicians to quit the project once its true nature was learned.
Now, Russians supply tech support.
The ongoing ambiguity of UAE officials toward enabling Russian access to U.S. and other Western technology has led to new sanctions, announced on Sept. 14, that target “more than 150 businesses and people from Russia to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Georgia” that sell Western technology to Russia for its war effort. The package aims to hobble Russia’s Arctic Sea natural gas projects as well as mines and factories that produce and repair Russian weapons. (READ MORE: Russia Courts North Korea)
In response, on Sept. 20, the UAE indicated it was considering introducing export licensing for a list of items, including computer chips and other components sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU and used by Russia’s military in the Ukraine war. If implemented, the licensing agency would withhold licenses for dual-use goods destined for the battlefield — which could be a big blow to Russia’s war effort.
But that’s a big IF — at least today.
The Battle for Interests
It is tempting for nations like the UAE to turn a blind eye to illicit trade and money laundering that bring in needed revenues and strengthen alliances with larger, stronger nations. Today especially, as the winds of change are in the air, the UAE would like to retain flexibility during times of geopolitical uncertainty.
Through Western eyes, it is obvious that the UAE should stop reexporting military technologies that aid Russia’s war effort. Doing so risks its deep security and economic ties with the U.S. and Europe. But Russia has been getting around trade restrictions for years by routing banned goods via nations that have no sanctions.
At the same time, the UAE has been building its own cyber industry, with huge increases in imports of semiconductors and advanced electronics — yet some of these items have been found in captured Russian weapons.
As the UAE moves closer to the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa and fellow new members Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Argentina, its fealty to a Western alliance struggling to redefine its core identity is uncertain at best.
The chief question now for both sides is whether the UAE will stop acting as a gateway for Russian access to sanctioned dual-use goods. In a war whose victors may well be determined by which side’s new technologies are most effective and not compromised, it is critical to the West that Russia not gain access to weapons through illegal third-nation technology transfers.
Putin’s Russia has created a number of “frozen conflicts” via its efforts to impose his will on the “near abroad,” from Nagorno-Karabakh to Trans-Dniester to Abkhazia to South Ossetia. While Ukrainian President Zelensky’s goal is to recover Crimea and restore Ukrainian hegemony over Donbass and other areas seized by the Russian army, the world can at least hope for some settlement that “freezes” this conflict as well.
The alternative — as the world’s two leading owners of nuclear weapons square off in a battle to the death — could be catastrophic, dwarfing the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.