Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the UAE has entrenched its friendship with Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently awarded the UAE’s Ambassador to Russia Mohammed al Jaber the Order of Friendship.
The warm relations pose an extreme threat to Western security. The UAE has become a principal conduit in Russia’s strategic supply chain, transporting Iranian drones to Moscow and helping Russia circumvent restrictions on its oil. Emirati state entities Edge Group and G42 have hired large numbers of Russian engineers and brought them to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. US tech companies and military partners such as Lockheed Martin and Microsoft have ties with both Emirati entities, providing training for Apache pilots and offering advanced cloud computing. Trade between Russia and the UAE increased by 68% year-on-year in 2022, to $9 billion, Tass reports.
The UAE aims to build a strong cybersecurity industry, both to protect itself, conduct domestic surveillance, and cash in. Peng Xiao, a US-Chinese national and CEO of G42’s subsidiary Presight.aim, has been driving the UAE’s cyber investments. He recently inked a joint venture with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems to develop cyber investments within Kazakhstan’s Astana Hub. Under the cover of commercial motivation, this deal means that Russian engineers working for G42 could gain access to Kazakhstan’s critical infrastructure. Remember, Russia recently deployed soldiers to quell protests in Kazakhstan. Russia provides expertise and manpower. The UAE offers financial support.
Russian expertise bolsters the UAE’s own intelligence gathering. Russian geospatial intelligence firm ScanEx has moved to the UAE, supplying high tech that the West refused: back in 2013, Russian intelligence informed their Emirati counterparts that the US had introduced a faulty component in the country’s French Falcon Eye Satellite restricting independent use of its shutter eye.
The UAE deploys widespread surveillance with its ‘Project Raven’ which hacked journalists, lawyers, politicians — and me — demonstrating the Emirati government’s will to crack down on all dissent. For Project Raven, UAE cyber specialist Dark Matter hired US technicians, many of whom quit after discovering the true purpose of their work. US lawmakers urged the Treasury and State Department to sanction Dark Matter. Russia now is the UAE’s preferred partner.
This suits the Kremlin. As Russia’s economy struggles with sanctions, the government is seizing strategic tech assets. Russian Minister of Digital Development Maksut Shadayev secured IT specialists an exemption from national army mobilization. Even so, tech leaders have fled en masse, to Kazakhstan, Israel, Turkey, and the UAE. An estimated 100,000 IT specialists fled Russia in 2022.
Given their strategic utility and the global reach of state security, this population is at risk of coercion and co-optation. Russia traditionally has kept surveillance on dissident expatriates and it is possible that the Russian FSB, SVR, and GRU security agencies are manufacturing an offshore technological capacity.
The UAE’s alliance with Russia has blindsided the West. A positive narrative of Emirati leadership combatting violent extremism may have proved useful following 9/11, but the UAE is now facilitating Russian State Security interests. To avoid additional damage to Western security, the West needs to recognize the UAE’s alignment with Russia’s State Security — and confront it.
Matthew Hedges is an academic focusing on authoritarianism. While conducting fieldwork research for his PhD in the UAE, he was detained, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment under the charge of espionage on behalf of the British Government. Durham University awarded him a doctorate and he has published this as Reinventing the Sheikhdom; Clan, Power and Patronage in MBZ’s UAE. Matthew has since testified to the UK House of Lords, Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), European Parliament, US Congress and House of Representatives, and international organisations such as the United Nations. His current research focuses on the commercial activities of non-Western intelligence organisations.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.