UAE Cancels Visa-Free Regime for Ukrainians Just Days Into Russian Invasion

Thomas Peter | Reuters
  • Western military officials now fear Russia's war in Ukraine is set to enter a far more destructive phase, with more indiscriminate killing.
  • The UAE was among just a few countries that have refrained from directly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
  • Some 15,000 Ukrainians live in the UAE, an oil-rich Gulf sheikhdom with a roughly 90% expatriate population.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates has suspended its visa-free regime with Ukraine that allowed Ukrainian citizens to stay in the country for up to 30 days without the need for a visa.

The news was announced on the Facebook page of the Ukrainian Embassy in the UAE on March 1, just six days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine and amid an outflow of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees from the country.

The post on Facebook read that "starting March 1, 2022, the United Arab Emirates will temporarily suspend the action of the Memorandum of mutual understanding between the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Government of the United Arab Emirates on mutual cancellation of visa requirements."

"From today, citizens of Ukraine - passport holders of Ukrainian citizen for going abroad should receive a suitable visa for visiting the UAE," it said.

The embassy later confirmed the news to CNBC via phone.

"The temporary suspension of action of the Memorandum on mutual understanding does not apply to those Ukrainian citizens who are already in the UAE," the post added. "Regarding citizens of Ukraine who arrived to the UAE for tourist purposes and were unable to return to Ukraine due to the beginning of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation, the Embassy will further inform."

The announcement shocked Ukrainians in the country, many of whom commented on the post with anger and bewilderment. Roughly 15,000 Ukrainians work and live in the UAE, a small desert sheikhdom whose population is roughly 90% expatriates. Some 250,000 visit the UAE as tourists yearly, according to the Ukrainian government.

Russian forces' bombing of Ukraine has intensified in the days following President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a "special military operation" he said would be carried out in the country's contested eastern regions. But the invasion quickly spread to the entire country, with heavy bombing of military and civilian areas, particularly in the two major cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv. Putin has demanded a full demilitarization of the country and is believed to be pursuing the removal of Ukraine's government.

Hundreds of people have been killed, Ukraine's government has said. Western military officials now fear the war is set to enter a far more destructive phase, with more indiscriminate killing, as an enormous Russian military convoy heads toward Kyiv.

According to the U.N., more than 600,000 civilians have fled Ukraine as of March 1.

"I have utmost respect for the UAE as its resident, but wish there was a better way for the country to react to the war in Ukraine other than canceling a visa-free regime for its nationals," one Ukrainian citizen living in Dubai, who requested anonymity due to professional interests and fear of government backlash, told CNBC.

"The best word to describe the sentiment would be 'disgusted' and multiple people, including myself, have indicated interest in moving out of here," he added.

The motivation behind the UAE government's decision was not immediately clear. A representative for the Ukrainian Embassy in the UAE told CNBC that it did not know why the policy change had been made. The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not responded to CNBC's request for comment.

UAE refrains from directly condemning Russia

The UAE was among just a few countries that abstained from the U.N. Security Council's procedural voting for holding a session on Ukraine and condemning the Russian invasion.

"As we conveyed on Friday, the developments in Ukraine undermine regional and international peace and security," the UAE's Explanation of Vote read on Monday. "The UAE reiterates that the protection of civilians in Ukraine is of the utmost importance, particularly as the security situation escalates. We reiterate once again the absolute need to uphold the principles of the UN Charter, in particular respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all Member States.''

Meanwhile, the U.S. and EU, in a group of 87 U.N. member states, condemned Russia's military incursion into Ukraine. Other notable abstentions were China and India. Western sanctions announced over the weekend and a mounting number of international companies cutting business ties to Russia have dealt a blow to its currency, the ruble, and put the country into increasing isolation.

Some 40,000 Russian nationals live in the UAE, according to its state news agency WAM. The two countries' trade relations have grown; between 1996 and 2019, Russian exports to the UAE "have increased at an annualized rate of 22%" to $2.47 billion in 2019, with paintings and precious metals as the top exports, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. In that time, UAE exports to Russia have increased at a rate of 17%, with aircraft parts as the top export.

Russian citizens can get a 90-day tourist visa on arrival upon entering the UAE.

UAE and Russia's OPEC+ ties

Importantly, the UAE and Russia have for the past few years worked in tandem as part of OPEC+, the alliance of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producer states led largely by Saudi Arabia and Russia. The crisis in Ukraine has pushed up already high oil prices, with Brent crude trading at around $110 on Wednesday, its highest level in seven years.

There are likely several reasons for the UAE's lack of outright condemnation of Russia, said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Rane.

A woman cries next to her children after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, February 28, 2022.
Stoyan Nenov | Reuters
A woman cries next to her children after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, February 28, 2022.

"The short-term reason is that they are benefiting from higher oil prices and have no interest in repeating the mistakes of spring 2020 by getting into some kind of price war with the Russians or destabilizing the oil market," Bohl said, referring to the oil price war between Russia and the Gulf states that sank crude prices in spring of 2020.

The Gulf region in general has been notably quiet; Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also refrained from an outright condemnation of Russia.

"The second reason is more strategic in that they don't see any particularly strong benefits from condemning Russia or engaging with the West's economic isolation strategy... And they realize the United States is going to cut a weaker Iran deal so it can disengage from the region," he said.

"They want to maintain the possibility of improved ties with Russia to offset a potential U.S. drawdown."

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