The Russia-Ukraine war, which will enter its second year on February 24, has transformed alliance and partnership structures around the world. Many of the post-invasion developments are unsurprising, such as Ukraine’s increased security ties with Europe and the United States, but relations between two particular countries—Belarus and the United Arab Emirates—are unduly overlooked.
Recently, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko conducted a state visit to the UAE, where he met with his Emirati counterpart, President Mohammed bin Zayed. During their meeting, the two leaders agreed to collaborate across several economic sectors, including trade and investment. To capitalize on this momentum, a large delegation of Emirati experts plans to visit Belarus in the near future. Rather than an aberration, closer bilateral ties between Minsk and Abu Dhabi are a natural byproduct of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion and the West’s deep commitment to supporting Kyiv have opened novel avenues of collaboration for two actors who, though not directly involved in the conflict, play a central role in its development.
A Prospering Partnership
The current partnership between the UAE and Belarus builds on existing bilateral economic ties across agriculture, banking and finance, education, transport and logistics, scientific research, sports, and tourism. Belarus is particularly interested in the UAE’s rapidly growing Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities. The annual growth in Al’s impact on the GDP is expected to range between 20-34 percent per year in the Middle East. At present, the most rapid growth is projected to take place in the UAE, followed by Saudi Arabia. Belarus seeks to harness the UAE’s technical know-how and financial resources to drive its Northern Waterfront development project. After his visit to Abu Dhabi, President Lukashenko noted that he had not only secured “$5 billion in investments, but also… [a] smart city, as well as powerful educational platforms for artificial intelligence.”
Belarus’ economy is driven by its manufacturing and agricultural exports. From 2010 to 2020, the country’s GDP grew by 18.3 percent, reaching $68.21 billion in 2021. However, Belarus’ involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine—providing Russian troops with a staging area along its southern border under the guise of “military exercises” in January 2022—led to Western sanctions, which have had a significant impact on the country’s economic stability. In 2023, the Belarusian central bank has announced a tight monetary policy intended to slow rampant inflation to more acceptable levels, between 7 and 8 percent. As a source of much-needed liquid assets, Belarus has turned to the UAE.
Geopolitical and macroeconomic trends have already accelerated growing Belarusian agricultural exports to the Gulf states. In May 2022, Minsk signed initial agreements for meat exports to the UAE; consequently five poultry farms and three meat processing factories were inspected by religious certifiers to ensure that they met halal requirements. By October 2022, 21 Belarusian meat companies had received halal certificates, in addition to 14 dairy producers and seven poultry processing firms.
Of course, commerce is rarely a one-way street. The UAE’s growing meat and dairy market, worth $1.56 billion in 2022, is expected to expand in the medium term as tourism to the Gulf state and citizens’ disposable incomes rise. In the period January-August 2022, trade growth between Belarus and the UAE rose 181 percent year over year. Belarus’ key exports to the UAE include sturgeon caviar and caviar substitutes, which grew 154 percent, as well as fish (up 147 percent), eggs (98 percent), skimmed milk powder (420 percent), and milk and dairy products (330 percent).
It is clear that both the UAE and Belarus view closer economic ties important for both countries. However, a prospective alignment of the two countries’ geopolitical or security interests is far more tenuous. Due to rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics and the general realignment of global power brought about by the Russia-Ukraine war, it is natural that states with significant stakes in the conflict’s outcome reevaluate their partnerships. The UAE has sought to diversify its international ties, especially in the post-Soviet space. Fence-sitting over the Ukraine war and maintaining strategic dialogues with major external powers directly or indirectly involved in the conflict have granted the UAE significant maneuverability. Thus, it is not outlandish for Abu Dhabi to develop closer ties to Belarus, Moscow’s “closest” ally. Western sanctions against Belarusian individuals and organizations directly involved in the Russian war effort have only served to drive Minsk and Moscow into greater lockstep. With an eye toward its national interests, the UAE maintains a dialogue with this pairing.
Emirati willingness to engage with Russia and Belarus stands in stark contrast to its frosty relationship with the United States. Indeed, Belarusian officials have capitalized on this dip in UAE-U.S. relations to drive a wedge between the two countries. Vadim Gigin, the Chairman of the Republican Znanie Belarussian Society, suggested that Belarus recognizes the UAE’s reluctance to “succumb to the dictates and pressure of the collective West, primarily the United States.” Whether Belarus can effectively translate economic connections into greater strategic cooperation remains to be seen, however. Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s recent visit to the UAE illustrates two important and salient dynamics. First, geopolitical realignment continues to occur throughout the international system—especially as it involves the GCC states. Second, the GCC states, and especially the UAE, will continue to adopt pragmatic foreign policies that maintain relations with “old” friends like the U.S. but facilitate ties to “new” friends, like Belarus. Although existing Emirati-Belarusian cooperation has been promising for both countries, the extent to which it will endure will require further scrutiny.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.