Russia offered weapons for sale on Monday at a biennial arms fair in the United Arab Emirates, ranging from Kalashnikov assault rifles to missile systems — despite facing sanctions from the West over its war on Ukraine.
The event, known as the International Defense Exhibition and Conference and held in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, underscores how the Gulf Arab federation has sought to embrace Moscow while balancing its ties to the West.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine approaches its first anniversary on Friday, Russian money continues to flood into Dubai’s red-hot real estate market.
Daily flights between the Emirates and Moscow continue as the war grinds on, providing a rare lifeline for both those fleeing conscription and the Russian elite. The U.S. Treasury has already expressed concerns about the amount of Russian cash flowing into the Arabian Peninsula country.
The arms fair typically sees the Emiratis host individuals that could be seen as problematic in the West. Former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir came to the 2017 edition. Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself now deeply involved in the Ukraine war, came in both 2019 and 2021.
This year’s event drew Libya’s Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army who faces a U.S. lawsuit accusing him of orchestrating indiscriminate attacks on civilians and torturing and killing political opponents.
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But while not directly acknowledged at this year’s show, the tendrils of Russia’s war on Ukraine could be seen everywhere at the fair Monday.
To reach Russia’s exhibition tent, those attending the fair had to leave Abu Dhabi’s cavernous National Exhibition Center and cross along a skybridge to an outdoor area.
Russian officials delayed Associated Press journalists from going inside their tent as an event was going on, initially without explanation. About an hour later, AP journalists saw Denis Manturov, Russia’s minister of trade and industry, come out of the tent.
Manturov is sanctioned by both the United States and the United Kingdom, with London describing him as being “responsible for overseeing the Russian weapons industry and responsible for equipping mobilized troops” in the war on Ukraine. Yet Manturov described the ongoing war as providing advertising for Russian weaponry.
“Any military action is further accompanied by interest in those products, those weapons that are in demand in a given military conflict,” he said, according to the Tass news agency. “Therefore, certainly, interest is now high in air defense systems — short-, medium-, and long-range ones.”
He added: “Each transaction is subject to close scrutiny from our Western colleagues — they are trying to create obstacles; we ensure the security of such deals so that they are as effective as possible and implemented privately.”
Emirati officials did not directly acknowledge Manturov’s presence. The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment about Russia’s presence at the arms show in a country that hosts thousands of American troops. Manturov visited the Emirates as U.S. President Joe Biden was in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Inside the Russian tent, a video screen proclaimed the power of Moscow’s surface-to-air missile systems, like those now being used to strike cities in Ukraine. Salesmen showed off Kalashnikov assault rifles to Emirati troops. Other model missiles sat on display.
Just outside of the tent, Russian Helicopters displayed several of its civilian aircraft, flanked by attractive young women in silver flight caps.
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UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was not seen at the opening, which was attended by his brother, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. However, one Russian magazine at the arms fair printed an English edition that carried photos of Sheikh Mohammed smiling and shaking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand during an earlier visit to Moscow.
In contrast, a giant armed drone by Baykar was parked next to the Russian tent. The Turkish drone company’s Bayraktar drones have played such a key role in Kyiv campaign against Russia there’s even a song in Ukrainian about the aircraft.
A short walk away, U.S. Army troops showed off a model of a Javelin anti-tank missile, allowing the curious to fire it in a computer simulation.
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Evan Williams of the 2-116th Cavalry Regiment said he and his soldiers had talked to Russian visitors at the fair and others curious about the weapon, which Ukraine has used to deadly effect against Russian armored vehicles.
“You’ve seen people walk by and kind of do a double-take about it,” said Williams of Boise, Idaho. “They come talk to us, ask us questions about it.”
The U.S. Army also had a Patriot missile battery on display at the fair. American forces used the battery in combat for the first time in decades in 2022 to help defend Abu Dhabi against an attack by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
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Meanwhile, Israel as well had its first full contingent of weapons companies on display, for the first time since the UAE diplomatically recognized the country in 2020. Both Israel and the UAE’s leadership have a deep suspicion about Iran’s intentions, though the UAE has tried to deescalate with Tehran, which now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
Israeli-Emirati ties have warmed even as Israel continues to build settlements on land the Palestinians want for their future state and as more Israeli-Palestinian violence spikes.