If the US does not enforce the UAE’s obligations as an ally, Abu Dhabi will use the power the US bestowed upon them and use it to thwart American interests.”
The UAE’s “double game” becoming dangerous for the West
20 April 2023
The United Arab Emirates has long been a close ally of the United States, with the two countries cooperating on issues ranging from security to trade. However, since at least the outbreak of the Ukraine war, tensions between the two nations have been on the rise, largely due to the UAE's growing relationship with Russia and allegations of sanctions evasion. Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, however, says that the UAE has been drifting out of the US sphere of influence for years, and is building counter-alliances to establish itself as a major regional and international player, often disregarding American and European interests.
“The Ukraine war has only helped bring attention to the somewhat rogue behaviour of the Emirates in relation to its role as an official Western ally,” Stirling explains, “This rogue behaviour is not actually new; we have been cautioning about this for years but only recently are the US, UK, and Europe starting to take it seriously.”
Despite a raft of US and EU sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UAE has been strengthening its economic ties with Russia since the war began. Trade between the two countries has reached a record high with the UAE importing significant amounts of oil and gas from Russia, and Russian investors flooding the Dubai property market like never before.
Understandably, the growing economic relationship between the UAE and Russia has raised concerns in the United States that the UAE is helping Russia to evade sanctions. In particular, there have been allegations that the UAE is facilitating the transfer of funds and goods to entities and individuals under sanctions. These practices pre-date the Ukraine war, going back to earlier sanctions imposed on Russia over their annexation of Crimea. “The UAE has only paid lip-service to sanctions compliance,” Stirling says, “Money laundering is the biggest open secret in the Emirates, whether that relates to Russia, China, Iran, or other sanctioned nations, as well as to illicit money from international criminal organisations.”
In 2020, the US Treasury Department sanctioned several UAE-based individuals and entities for their alleged involvement in sanctions evasion. These included three companies and three individuals who were accused of helping a Russian company to evade sanctions by transferring millions of dollars worth of funds to it. The Treasury Department also accused two UAE-based firms of providing support to the Syrian regime, which is also under US sanctions, and is allied with Moscow. Earlier this month, the US imposed further sanctions against at least two more Emirati companies connected with Moscow. “The increasing number of punitive actions by the US signals their recognition that the UAE has been playing a double game,” Stirling explains, “They have made gestures against laundering and declared their respect for the rule of law on one hand, but on the other hand, they are actively courting and welcoming investments from Russian oligarchs, deepening their economic and political partnerships with Russia and China, and establishing a parallel infrastructure of support through those partnerships to enable the UAE to defy and dismiss accountability to their Western allies; and the US is beginning to realise it”
The UAE has denied any wrongdoing and has pledged to cooperate with the United States in enforcing sanctions. However, recent developments suggest that the relationship between the two countries is becoming increasingly strained.
Stirling says that the UAE’s “double game” has been going on for years. “In 2019, the US imposed sanctions on several Russian companies for their involvement in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Despite these sanctions, the UAE continued to facilitate the construction of the pipeline by allowing Russian ships to refuel in its ports.
“When the Biden administration announced in 2021 that it was reviewing arms sales to the UAE, including a $23 billion deal for F-35 fighter jets and other advanced weaponry, the Emirates was unmoved. Just one month later the Wall Street Journal reported that the UAE had signed a secret agreement with Russia to cooperate on military and intelligence matters. The agreement was said to include a provision allowing Russian military planes to use a UAE air base, potentially giving Russia greater access to the Middle East, and access to American technology. In other words, the Emiratis completely disregarded US security concerns, even under the threat of a suspension of billions of dollars in weapons sales.”
The news of the secret agreement sparked further alarm in Washington and prompted a strong response from US officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that any cooperation between the UAE and Russia that undermined US interests would have consequences. These actions have led to growing concerns among US officials about the UAE's reliability as an ally of America. In February 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned that the US would "take a hard look" at the UAE's relationship with Russia and China, warning that the UAE's actions could have "serious implications" for its relationship with the US.
Stirling notes that the UAE has also helped China evade US sanctions on Iran, “In 2019, the US imposed sanctions on several Chinese companies for their involvement in the purchase of Iranian oil. However, the UAE continued to allow Chinese companies to import Iranian oil through its ports, in utter defiance of the sanctions regime.”
The UAE has defended its relationship with Russia and China, with officials pointing to the importance of maintaining good relations with all countries in the region. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said that its cooperation with Russia was "based on mutual respect, shared interests and the pursuit of security and stability in the region." However, Stirling explains statements like these simply reveal the UAE’s duplicity, “The Emirates’ deepening ties with authoritarian governments hostile to the West undermines regional stability and security, and demonstrates disrespect and disregard for American and European concerns; so it appears that the ‘shared interests’ refers to subverting Western influence in the region.”
As America increasingly recognises the belligerence of the UAE, it is likely to have significant implications for the future of their bilateral relationship. “The US has been the UAE's closest ally and a key partner in its efforts to build a modern, diversified economy. If the rift deepens, it could lead to a cooling of relations between the two countries, potentially affecting trade, investment and security cooperation,” Stirling notes, “So the growing alienation between the US and the UAE is not just a matter of geopolitical concern, but also has economic implications. The UAE has been a key US partner in the Middle East, providing a critical hub for US military operations in the region and serving as a major market for US exports. In 2020, US exports to the UAE totalled $22.3 billion, making the UAE the US's third-largest export market in the Middle East. The US has not leveraged this relationship to their advantage, trusting that the Emirates would value relations enough to behave responsibly, but that is not what is happening. If the US does not enforce the UAE’s obligations as an ally, Abu Dhabi will use the power the US bestowed upon them and use it to thwart American interests.”