DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin began a trip Wednesday to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, hoping to shore up support in the Mideast from two major oil producers allied to the U.S. as his war on Ukraine grinds on.
Putin landed in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms now hosting the United Nations' COP28 climate talks. It marked his first trip to the region since before the coronavirus pandemic and the war — and as he faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court over the war in Ukraine.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has signed the ICC founding treaty, meaning they don't face any obligation to detain Putin over the warrant accusing him of being personally responsible for the abductions of children from Ukraine during his war on the country. Putin skipped a summit in South Africa over concerns he could be arrested on arrival there.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s foreign minister, met a smiling Putin after he bounded down the stairs of his presidential plane. As he arrived at Abu Dhabi's Qasr al-Watan palace to meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country's ruler, the UAE's military acrobatics team flew in formation with red, white and blue smoke trailing them in the colors of the Russian flag.
“I'm happy to meet you again,” Sheikh Mohammed said as he sat with Putin in the palace.
Soldiers on horseback and with camels lined his arrival route, Russian and Emirati flags also hanging from lampposts.
Four Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets accompanied Putin’s plane on the flight to the Emirates, Russian state-run media reported.
The pageantry in the Emirates, which relies on the U.S. as its major security partner, highlights the UAE's expansive business ties to Russia that have exploded since grinding Western sanctions targeted Moscow.
Ukrainians on hand for the event expressed outrage over Putin being in the country at the same time they described him as committing environmental crimes in their country.
“It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a worker at the Ukrainian pavilion at the COP28 climate summit, wiping away tears. "Seeing how people let people like him in the big events, ... treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical in my opinion.”
Officials at Russia's pavilion at the talks declined to speak to The Associated Press. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power made a point to tour Ukraine's pavilion at COP28 before being scheduled to address a news conference later Wednesday afternoon.
Putin last visited the UAE in 2019, receiving a warm welcome from Sheikh Mohammed, then the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. In the time since, however, the world has greatly changed.
The Russian president isolated himself during the coronavirus pandemic. He launched an invasion targeting Ukraine in February 2022, a grinding war that continues today and has been a topic for Ukrainian diplomats at the COP28 talks.
Meanwhile, the Israel-Hamas war remains a major concern for the Mideast, particularly the UAE, which reached a diplomatic recognition with Israel in 2020. Recent attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels also threaten commercial shipping in the Red Sea as Iran’s nuclear program continues its rapid advances since the collapse of the 2016 nuclear deal.
Putin is scheduled to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Thursday for what Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov has described as “a rather lengthy conversation.” The two countries have been discussing ways to get around the Western sanctions targeting them.
Putin will travel to Saudi Arabia and meet with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the one-day trip, Ushakov said. Those discussions likely will focus on Moscow’s other major concern in the Middle East — oil.
Russia is part of OPEC+, a group of cartel members and other nations that have managed production to try and boost crude oil prices. Last week, the group expanded some output cuts into next year and brought up-and-coming oil supplier Brazil into the fold. Benchmark Brent crude traded Wednesday around $77 a barrel, down from nearly $100 in September, over concerns about a weakening economy worldwide.
The visit comes after a parade of Western leaders including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and others backing Ukraine spoke at COP28. So did Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, long a Putin ally.
A readout on Putin's trip from the state-run Tass news agency published early Wednesday offered no suggestion he might come to the COP28 site, instead quoting Ushakov saying he'd land and have a “meeting at the palace” and one-on-one talks with Sheikh Mohammed. Still, some reports suggest Putin could make an appearance at the climate talks.
The U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change's spokesperson Alexander Saier told a news conference Monday morning that he was “not aware that Mr. Putin will come to the conference, but I would also need to check the host country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” He declined to answer whether U.N. police would be obligated to make an arrest.
The Emirati organization committee for COP28 referred questions to the UAE's Foreign Ministry, which did not respond. The UAE repeatedly feted the now-deposed Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir in the past despite an ICC warrant seeking his arrest on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
“I’m talking about his crimes and this person is literally right now here, somewhere near me," said Alina Abramenko, another worker at the Ukrainian pavilion that highlights the environmental damage wrought by the war. "You know, it’s really strange.”