Russia Has Strategic Ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE

January 31, 2024

Russia's relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are characterized by pragmatism and strategic interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L) in St. Petersburg, Russia on October 11, 2022. Photo by Anadolu Images.


ussia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reveal a multifaceted and increasingly strategic nature as recently witnessed by the visits of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Discussions on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war, Israeli attacks on Gaza, and OPEC+ point to a deepening engagement beyond traditional energy cooperation.

President Putin visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia on December 6. The visits were notable as they were among the rare visits made by the Russian president after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. As a result of the arrest warrant, for example, Putin did not attend the recent BRICS summit in South Africa or the G20 summit in India.

While Putin’s visit to the Gulf is critical in many respects, it is also fundamentally related to the structure of Russia-Gulf relations after the Russia-Ukraine war that began in February 2022. The visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, Israel’s attacks on Gaza, OPEC+ energy issues, and the Yemen issue.

Analysis of conjunctional developments on the Russia-Gulf line

With the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, showed a neutral foreign policy tendency. In essence, the Gulf countries’ refusal to participate in the sanctions against Russia imposed by Western countries—led by the United States—was similar to the foreign policy trends before the Russia-Ukraine war.

The Gulf states were already having problems in their relations with the U.S. because of its rhetoric and actions about withdrawing from the region; however, after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, relations entered a crisis of confidence. In addition, the U.S., which has problems with Saudi Arabia over, among others, the Biden-Muhammad bin Salman tension and oil production policy, has also experienced tensions in its relations with the UAE over issues such as Russia-UAE relations and the UAE’s relations with the Assad government in Syria.

In fact, the Gulf countries, which have intensified their search for both regional and international partnerships, did not participate in the sanctions against Russia imposed by Western countries. At the same time, within the framework of this search for partnership, normalization processes with Israel, Iran, and Turkey have been carried out since 2020, albeit at different levels. The depth of the Gulf states’ positions on the Russia-Ukraine war, in fact, can be attributed to signs of a multipolar world order prevailing among them.

The Gulf views Russia as an alternative power in a multipolar world order and a critical actor in terms of energy policy, strategic partnerships, and regional security concerns. The decline in global demand for oil and natural gas derivatives from 2019 onwards, in the context of pandemic measures and the transition to renewable energy projects, was the point at which Russia and the Gulf countries sought a common solution. At a time when the discourse on reducing the use of fossil fuels was one of the most important dimensions of the fight against global climate change, the loss of global oil and gas supplies made Russia and the Gulf countries strategic energy actors once again.

The sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia’s oil and gas exports as of February 2022 enabled Russia and the Gulf countries to effectively use the OPEC+ platform in global international relations. Despite serious criticism and sometimes veiled threats from the U.S., since 2019, the largest producers, Russia and Saudi Arabia, have taken decisions to reduce oil production within OPEC+ several times, and price stability in the oil market has been achieved.

At the same time, Russian oligarchs are protecting their financial resources mainly in Middle Eastern countries and, in particular, in places like the Emirate of Dubai, and  do not want to lose them due to the pursuit of sanctions by Western regimes. According to 2022 data, Russian citizens came first in the purchase of houses in Dubai, leaving behind British and Indian citizens—a sign that explains Russia’s strategic relations with the Gulf countries.

Background of the strategic security and defense partnerships

Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates date back beyond recent years, when signs of a multipolar world order were seen, and the Russia-Ukraine war. It should be remembered that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been developing military, defense, and security cooperation with Russia since the 2010s. Saudi Arabia’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system, Kornet-EM anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) systems, and other specific military equipment from Russia was on the agenda. The two countries also signed a military cooperation agreement in August 2021. At the time, the move by Saudi Arabia was interpreted as a strategy to build relationships with influential international actors and achieve relative autonomy through partnerships, rather than relying solely on the United States in security and defense policy.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has long been engaged in military, defense, and security partnership cooperation with Russia. So much so that Russia is known to be negotiating with the UAE and India on the joint production of the fifth-generation SU-57 fighter jet. At the same time, defense and security cooperation between Russia and the UAE has manifested itself in Russia’s interventions in Syria and Libya since 2015, while the UAE has sought to harmonize its strategy and power with Russia’s strategy in both regions. In addition, the two countries seem to be pursuing a joint strategy in South Yemen. Also, between 2009 and 2013, Russia supplied the UAE with Pantsir-S air defense systems, which were subsequently reformed.

For many years, Russian companies have been able to present their current products at international exhibitions held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Such platforms can be used to broker contracts for the supply of military equipment. All in all, it should be noted that the UAE’s defense/security partnership with Russia is a strategic diversification choice rather than a conjunctional necessity.

Russia’s current relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Putin’s visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia can be summarized in three main points. First, it is important to emphasize that Russia is a strategically positioned actor in the Gulf security architecture, following the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran initiated by China in March 2023. The high-level images at Putin’s welcoming ceremony in the UAE and the intimate images of Mohammed bin Salman and Putin during their recent visits and on international platforms clearly reveal Russia’s position in the Gulf. In fact, if we compare Putin’s visit with that of U.S. President Joe Biden, who recently visited Jeddah, we can understand Russia’s strong position in the Gulf.

Second, during his visit to the UAE, at his meeting with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, Putin said that Russian-UAE relations have reached an unprecedented level and that the UAE is Russia’s largest trade partner in the Arab world. This shows the strategic dimension of the UAE-Russia relations. The volume of trade between Russia and the UAE increased by 68% in 2022 compared to the previous year, approaching $9 billion. While Russia’s trade volume with Saudi Arabia was close to $2 billion in 2022, the goal was to increase it to $5 billion by February 2023.

Third, Putin’s visits can be seen as one of Russia’s most important steps towards breaking its international isolation. While Putin last visited the UAE in 2019, Mohammed bin Zayed visited St Petersburg to follow the developments in the Russia-Ukraine war. He made an official visit to Russia in July 2023 to attend the St Petersburg Economic Forum. Putin stated that Russia and the UAE have a partnership within OPEC+, in addition to their political and security partnership and commercial connections, implying that the relationship between the two countries is strengthened by the harmony in energy policy.

Implications for Gulf-Russia dynamic

Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as evidenced by Putin’s recent visit to the Gulf, reveal a multifaceted and increasingly strategic nature. While maintaining their traditional alliances with Western powers, both Gulf states are moving towards a more balanced foreign policy on critical geopolitical issues and economic cooperation with Russia.

Putin’s visits symbolize a subtle shift in Gulf diplomacy and reflect the evolving multipolar world order, in which regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are diversifying their international partnerships.

Russia’s relations with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are characterized by pragmatism and strategic interests. Initially focused on energy cooperation and oil market stability through OPEC+, these relations have evolved over time to include broader issues such as security, military cooperation, and geopolitical alignments.

The Gulf states’ approach to Russia is indicative of their broader strategy to position themselves in a complex international environment by balancing relations with both traditional Western allies and emerging powers such as Russia and China. This dynamic underscores the shift in global international relations, with Gulf states demanding greater autonomy in foreign policy decisions.

Gokhan Ereli is a research assistant in Gulf Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) and a
Ph.D. Student at Middle Eastern Technical University, International Relations Department.