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Inside the luxurious lives of the Russians of Dubai

Two super-yachts reflect the abundance of wealth found in modern Dubai
Super-yachts reflect the abundance of wealth found in modern Dubai - iStockphoto

The five Russians waited for Vladimir Putin in the blazing Abu Dhabi sunshine for about an hour, holding their smartphones at the ready hoping to catch a glimpse of their pariah president.

After another five Russians arrived on bicycles, Putin’s convoy flew past and Emirati jets roared overhead, trailing smoke in the colours of the Russian flag.

The small welcome committee was a sign of how many Russians have flocked to the UAE since Putin launched his illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Russians can relax amid the towering skyscrapers and cavernous shopping malls of desert city playgrounds like Dubai, safe from the judgement, restrictions and taxes they would face in Europe.

They can also shelter their wealth from Western sanctions, while spending it on caviar and vodka at high-end restaurants as they enjoy a welcome they would not receive in the West, where direct flights from Russia are banned in the UK and EU.

UAE top destination

The UAE became the top destination for private flights out of Russia in the weeks after the invasion. Russians are now the second largest group of visitors, behind India.

Back in Russia, a number one chart hit celebrated the lifestyle with lyrics including “I’m in Dubai, I’m chilling... Yeah, I’m rich, and I don’t hide it.”

The number of Russian tourists visiting Dubai almost doubled between the January to July period in 2022 and 2023, according to Dubai’s Department of Energy and Tourism, rising from 348,000 to 673,000.

“Many more Russians have come here since the war,” one cab driver told the Telegraph as he drove to the marina where the super-rich can hire luxury yachts for pleasure trips.

Some bring their own. Last year, a sanctioned Russian billionaire MP caused a stir when he docked his six-suite superyacht, complete with helipad, at a Dubai port.

‘Here it is easy if you have money’

“Here it is easy if you have money,” said Galina, a regular traveller to Dubai and a Russian national.

“There are a lot of Russians here. It is easy, not like Europe, to do business,” she added as she enjoyed a drink in one of Dubai’s myriad five star hotels.

President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin
President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi - REUTERS

Even far away from Russia, she admitted it was risky to speak to a British newspaper, which is why the Telegraph has changed her name.

Was it true that, as well as tourists and oligarchs, many Russians had fled to the UAE to avoid being drafted into the army to fight in Ukraine?

“Let’s say you are lucky to live where you live and do the job you do. That’s the safe answer,” Galina said.

In the Dubai Mall, which sprawls close to the Burj Khalifa, one Russian family watched sharks and stingrays circle endlessly in the towering tank of the gigantic multi-storey aquarium at its heart.

Russian was often heard in the rows of luxury shops, including Marks and Spencer, Tom Baker and Waitrose, offering Western goods out of reach in Russia.

Putin needs UAE as much as any other oligarch

Putin needs the UAE just as much as any other Russian oligarch, as he seeks to counter his international isolation by bolstering alliance with the oil-rich gulf states.

Russia is part of the Opec+ group of oil-producing nations and needs trade with the UAE more than ever after Europe reduced its dependence on Russian gas.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, inspect the UAE Honour Guard during a state visit reception,
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Vladimir Putin inspect the UAE Honour Guard during a state visit reception. - REUTERS

In 2021, the UAE imports from Russia were valued at £3.7 billion. Within the year, as Russia invaded Ukraine, direct trade more than doubled to £8.2 billion, according to Telegraph analysis of UN Trade figures.

This wealth was mainly made up of diamond and other precious stones imports, which more than tripled to £7.1 billion, as well as fuel (£283 million) and raw materials and foodstuffs.

While the UAE’s figures show a slight dip in exports to Russia over the period, exports of electronics and parts have more than doubled to £1.7 billion.

‘Communication and dialogue’

Russian direct investment in the UAE saw a stark increase throughout the first three quarters of 2021, doubling the long term average to reach just over £2 billion US dollars by Q3, according to the Bank of Russia. Direct investment has fallen slightly since, but remains at a historically high level.

Little wonder Putin told UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan their relationship had reached “unprecedented levels” as he was greeted with a 21 gun salute in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE defended its welcome of the Russian president, who has an international warrant against him for the abduction of Ukrainian children, saying it would help the prospects of peace in Ukraine through “communication and dialogue”.

President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (R) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) during a state visit reception at Qasr Al Watan, in Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Vladimir Putin during a state visit reception at Qasr Al Watan, in Abu Dhabi. - Shutterstock

But the West has identified this Russian oasis as a problem. As Putin touched down, the UK imposed sanctions on four Emirati shipping companies, accusing them of helping to fuel the Russian war machine by hiding Moscow’s oil exports.

Firms based in the UAE can legally buy and sell Russian oil at any price, as long as they are using non-European shipping and financial services providers.

‘UAE prime destination for Russian money’

Neither the Russian Business Council nor the Russian Emirates magazine for expats replied to the Telegraph’s requests for comment for this article.

But the Russian community in the UAE may not be completely safe from the fallout of Putin’s disastrous war.

James Nixey, the director of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme, said: “The UAE is now a prime destination for Russian money - and the holders of that money - now that the West is no longer a ‘safe space’ for it or for them.”

“But even if the West can’t freeze it there, the cash-strapped Russian state may still require ‘access’ to it, even if it nominally resides in private hands,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.

“How safe is a Russian billionaire from the reaches of the Kremlin in UAE?”