Putin’s Visit to Saudi Arabia and UAE Highlights Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Gulf States

Vladimir Putin
In December 2023, the Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Credits: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 37 Issue 2
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

Putin’s visit to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh confirmed Russia’s strategy in the Arab-Muslim world aimed at enhancing economic partnership in energy, logistics, and trade and attracting Gulf monarchies’ investors in Russian infrastructural projects.

Key Facts

  • Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the Russian Federation has intensified its relations with the Arab-Muslim world, especially the members of the Gulf Council Countries (GCC).
  • Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are strategic trade partners and investors for Russia, considering the Kremlin’s necessity to attract financial funds to develop national infrastructures and economic market.
  • Riyadh and Abu Dhabi can support Moscow’s strategy to adopt Islamic banking in the Russian Federation, especially in those regions where most Russian Muslims live.
  • By enhancing relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Russia seeks to promote the idea of a multipolar world and to play an engaging role in the GCC, where currently the United States and China are competing.

Putin’s visit to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh:
Background Information

On December 6th, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In Abu Dhabi, Putin met with the Emirati president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and discussed the Russian-Emirati relations and the current situation in the Middle East with special attention to Palestine and the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

This was the second meeting during this year between Putin and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Before, the two leaders met in June 2023 at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum.

In Riyadh, the Russian president met with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and discussed cooperation in the trade, economic and investment fields, and interaction in multilateral formats. The parties discussed also the prospects of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

Last time Putin met with Mohammed bin Salman was in 2019, although the parties have regular phone calls (in 2023, they called each other five times).

The United Arab Emirates is Russia’s main foreign economic partner in the Arab world. In 2022, mutual trade turnover renewed its historical maximum and reached a record high of $9 billion. In January – September 2023, according to the statistics provided by the Russian side, trade turnover increased by 63% compared to last year’s figures for the same period.

Moscow and Abu Dhabi work together in some international organisations such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) where Abu Dhabi holds the status of dialogue partner since May 2023.

Since they are both members of the OPEC+ format, Moscow and Riyadh have coordinated their activities to guarantee of maintaining a stable and predictable situation in the global oil market. The Russian-Saudi bilateral trade in January – September 2023 increased by 4.8% compared to the same period last year and amounted to $1.35 billion.

Among the promising areas of cooperation are agriculture, energy, including nuclear, industry, investment and space sectors. As for agriculture, approximately 70% of trade turnover between the two countries comes from the export of Russian agricultural products.

Geopolitical Analysis

Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the Kremlin has been significantly active in promoting relations with the Arab-Muslim world by organising different events in the territory of the Russian Federation, especially in those regions such as the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, where most of the locals are Muslims.

Among the events, Kazan Forum 2023 was Moscow’s major opportunity to increase cooperation with Arab-Muslim countries, especially the GCC members, by emphasising Russia’s role in guaranteeing a harmonious multi-confessional and multicultural society.

As reported before, Moscow and Kyiv have embarked on a strategy to attract the economic and diplomatic support from the Arab-Muslim world since February 2022.

For instance, in May 2023, while the Russian Federation hosted thousands of foreign and Muslim representatives at the Kazan Forum 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky visited Jedda and spoke as an honoured guest at the Arab League Summit.

For the Russian Federation, increasing the partnership and synergy with the GCC members, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is fundamental to Moscow’s foreign policy based on promoting the multipolar world and eroding Washington’s influence in strategic areas as the Gulf Arab region.

In addition, an increased cooperation with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi can support the Kremlin’s project to establish Islamic banking and Islamic financial products in the country and, consequently, attract foreign investments in the country’s logistic and socioeconomic development projects.


Putin’s visit to the Middle East highlighted Russia’s foreign policy in the Gulf Arab region and Moscow’s attempt to strengthen its role as an alternative actor to the United States and China.

In this context, thanks to the Russian Muslim umma (community), which allows the Russian Federation to be an observer member of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and to maintain a connection with the Middle East, Moscow can play the ‘religion’ card in its foreign policy.

By promoting trade exchange and collaboration in the energy field and establishing the Islamic banking in the Russian financial market, the Kremlin has tried to become a significant player in the Arab-Muslim world in a geopolitical scenario currently characterised by Washington – Beijing confrontation and the GCC countries’ strategy to increase their regional role and become more influential in the international arena.

In this context, the Russian stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Kremlin’s support to Palestinians refuges (most of them moved in the North Caucasus as part of a humanitarian program established by the Russian authorities), might strengthen Moscow’s image in the Middle East.

As Sergey Evgenievich Naryshkin, Director of the Sluzhby vneshnej razvedki Rossijskoj Federaci – SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation), highlighted in his analysis published by Razvedchik, the Arab world will remain a key arena of the struggle for a new world order in 2024.

Therefore, considering the key strategic role that the Middle East will continue playing the next year in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, it is foreseeable that Moscow will increase relations and joint projects with the GCC members as well cooperation agreement in energy, defence, and logistics.

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