Russian President Vladimir Putin met United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi at the start of a rare foreign trip to strengthen partnerships in the Middle East — defying US and European efforts to isolate him on the global stage.

Putin thanked the Emirati leader for welcoming him and said they would discuss both the Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in Ukraine, according to remarks broadcast at the start of the meeting. Relations between Russia and the UAE are at “an unprecedented level” and focused on expanding economic ties, he said.  

“I will be happy to continue our joint work to strengthen bilateral cooperation in different spheres,” the UAE leader responded, noting the two countries’ increased trade and investment outside of oil over the past years. Putin also praised the UAE’s decision to join the BRICS group of emerging economies.

Putin’s visit to the oil-rich region — his first since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine — shows he’s still welcome in several parts of the globe, even as the US and Europe seek to punish the Kremlin with sanctions and arms to Kyiv. Putin will also fly to Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, according to the Kremlin, where bolstering the partnership between the oil giants will be a top priority. 

Welcome Party

Putin’s plane was escorted by four Su-35 fighter jets on its flight to UAE. Russia received special permission for the flight from the countries whose airspace they crossed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to state-run Tass news service. UAE Air Force planes escorted the plane as Putin entered UAE airspace, state newswire WAM reported.

Upon arrival, Putin was greeted by senior UAE officials and treated to a flyover by the “Emirates Knights” national air show team, leaving vapor trails in the colors of the Russian flag behind them. Artillery fired 21 rounds to welcome the Russian leader, according to WAM.

In Riyadh, Bin Salman is looking to the Russian leader to cement cooperation within OPEC+, the alliance between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other major oil producers, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE-based political expert. 

Last week, OPEC+ agreed to extend and deepen production cuts to bolster prices. While the alliance’s talks were marred by delays due to an internal disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Angola and Nigeria, officials from Moscow and Riyadh projected an image of close cooperation and mutual trust during the process.

Saudi Arabia has faith that Moscow will implement its share of the output cuts, Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday. In comments to state-run Tass news agency on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak echoed the kingdom’s position, saying OPEC+ stands ready to take further action if required.

Aside from oil, investment and trade are expected to be on the agenda for the leaders. The Russian Direct Investment Fund hopes to attract 1 trillion rubles ($10.8 billion) of investment from Saudi Arabia in the next two years, the fund’s head, Kirill Dmitriev, who is part of Putin’s delegation in Abu Dhabi, told reporters, according to Interfax news service. 

Putin is also expected to discuss Israel’s offensive on Hamas in Gaza, which has been running since the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The fighting has created a wedge between the US, which supports Israel, and Arab nations including Saudi Arabia due to the thousands of Palestinian deaths and the deepening humanitarian crisis.

Middle East Engagement

On Thursday, Putin will host Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose country backs Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. 

Russia considers many countries in the Middle East to be friendly in contrast to the European Union, UK and US. Russian business, including commodities firms from oil to aluminum and fertilizers, have been moving their operations to the UAE since the start of the war in Ukraine. Russian steel billionaire Vladimir Lisin re-registered his holding company to Abu Dhabi, while billionaire Andrey Melnichenko, who has been sanctioned by the EU and the US, also has a UAE passport.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is traveling with Putin, will remain in the region this week, attending forums in Abu Dhabi then Doha, Qatar, state-run Tass news service reported. 

Putin has limited his trips mainly to close allies since he ordered troops into Ukraine, triggering a raft of international sanctions, including on its crude exports. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him in March for alleged war crimes, further complicating travel outside his country. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have signed onto the ICC.