The United Arab Emirates in BRICS+. But What About the West?

Deepening relations with BRICS+ states is the UAE authorities‘ strategy to expand towards the East without compromising its position in the West. Seeking new opportunities is crucial for pursuing the UAE’s aspirations and securing its standing in light of contemporary challenges.

The United Arab Emirates‘ (UAE) official admission to BRICS+ in early 2024 is a continuation of its diversification strategy, which emphasizes the role of strengthened partnerships with the so-called developing and emerging economies such as China and India in the new world order. From the UAE’s perspective, the Eastern powers are considered strategic partners, as evidenced by high trade turnover and initiated projects such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) or the Belt and Road Initiative. Speaking of Russia and the war in Ukraine, the UAE and a few Gulf states objected to backing any of the sides in the war or imposing sanctions against Moscow. However, despite the thriving relationship between Russia and the UAE, Abu Dhabi authorities do not want to breach the sanctions regime, which indicates that their policy towards Russia depends on their relations with the West.

“Pivot to Asia” appears to be the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy direction, but is it truly the case? Answering the question requires further analysis not only in the economic aspect but also in security issues, which are crucial for the UAE and other monarchies, too. Building its futuristic empire, Abu Dhabi is attempting to balance between the West and the East to strengthen its regional and international position amid the rising regional powers and create a network of strategic partnerships to succeed in achieving its long-term goals effectively. The successful accomplishment of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious visions, such as We the UAE 2031 embracing “social, economic, investment and development aspects,”requires a safe environment and stability. The partnerships and alliances in the UAE are diverse, each offering slightly different opportunities. Hence, it is essential to explain the role of Western states, that is, the United States (US) and the European Union, and the East: China, India, and Russia, in the UAE’s foreign policy. We also focus on how the United Arab Emirates‘ membership in the BRICS+ group impacts its position and relations with the West, its hitherto most important ally. 

UAE’s Economy in Brief  

The United Arab Emirates is a prominent example of an effective, fast-growing world economy. Khalid S. Almezaini, in his publication “The UAE and Foreign Policy: Foreign Aid, Identities and Interests” (2012), argues that despite its small size, the UAE can be an important player, particularly due to its strategic location and wealth provided by hydrocarbons. Currently, the UAE is regarded as a regional trade hub because of its highly developed logistics sector, including airports and seaports. As the numbers have shown, in 2022, the UAE was placed second, following Saudi Arabia in terms of GDP. Other examples reveal that in 2020, Abu Dhabi ranked highest among Arab states in the Doing Business Index report, proving that the state’s authorities stand firm on improving its regional position in attracting foreign capital. The state also ranks first in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and West Asia regions regarding inward foreign direct investments (FDI), accounting for 32,4% and 47,1% of total assets, respectively. The state has achieved a commendable ranking in other indexes, including the Global Innovation Index (2022) and the Human Development Index (2022). Additionally, The UAE was also the first among Arab states to enter the top 10 of the Global Soft Power Index (2023), signaling the increasing role of Abu Dhabi worldwide.

It is worth mentioning the diversification strategy followed by the state authorities. In domestic terms, Abu Dhabi has been reducing its hydrocarbon dependency, accounting for nearly 30% of the state’s GDP (2019). Leah Sherwood discusses the international dimension in her chapter “Risk Diversification and the United Arab Emirates’s Foreign Policy” (2016), pointing to the risk diversification strategy in both economic and security spheres. Emirati politicians strengthen their various partnerships and alliances by getting involved in a wide range of activities and agreements that serve their development path and security arrangements in a changing environment.

UAE Between the West and the East 

Small states use different strategies to protect themselves from outside threats. They rely on their capabilities and alliances, which eventually lead to increased security levels. However, by the example of the UAE, the growing military potential and economic standing on the international stage, resulting from assertiveness, indicates a shift in their foreign policymaking, which was widely discussed by Dina Esfandiary in her book „New Order in the Gulf: The Rise of the UAE“ (2022). The new approach exemplifies how small states can go beyond their capabilities and become key players on the international stage. Emirati authorities repeatedly emphasize the strategic role of the UAE and the need to strengthen international partnerships. For instance, in a speech at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate in 2023, Dr. Anwar Gargash, former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (2008-2021) and a diplomatic advisor to the UAE President, highlighted the opportunity for growth and diversification in the East, specifically with Japan, India, China, Indonesia and South Korea. He also emphasized that this policy does not conflict with the UAE’s relations with the West but rather serves as a bridge connecting both sides. Likewise, the UAE authorities have praised the decision to join BRICS+ and regarded it as a success and a chance to enhance cooperation in a multipolar world order, notably with a view to achieving prosperity and development by all states. As the data shows, BRICS countries are said to account for nearly 37,3% of global GDP.

UAE and the West – the United States and the European Union

The United States has been a long-term security guarantor and weapons exporter to the Middle East. To date, this is the only actor capable of providing security, unlike China or any other great power. Regarding bilateral trade with the UAE, the main ally is not a key trade partner for the monarchy ($7,38bn in 2022 in imports from the UAE). However, Abu Dhabi has been the most important export market ($18,7bn in 2022) in the MENA region for the US since 2009. Washington, together with New Delhi and Beijing, plays a central role in investing in the UAE, specifically in infrastructure development. It is also worth noting that the UAE allocates its capital in the US, focusing on the aviation and semiconductor sectors. The parties also established the UAE-US Economic Policy Dialogue in 2013, which serves as a platform for discussion and bolstering investments and trade.

As for EU relations with the monarchy, both actors cooperate under the EU-Gulf Cooperation Council Cooperation Agreement signed in 1989. The agreement created opportunities for mainly economic development, energy, investments, science, and technology. Also, the parties initiated negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement, but there have been no fruitful results so far. With the prospect of deepening the existing partnership with the Gulf states, in 2022, the Council of the European Union approved a document titled “Joint EU Strategic Partnership with the Gulf.” This strategy addresses issues such as energy security, climate change, trade and investment, regional stability and global security, and people-to-people ties. However, Cinzia Bianco claims that the Gulf states and the EU still require more time to address their differences regarding their relations and cooperation in the specific fields and the perception of other great powers‘ presence in the region. 

Given the trade records (including energy resources), the EU is the second largest exporter of goods to the UAE ($37,65bn in 2022) after China ($57,7bn) among the BRICS states and the US. The EU also remains an important partner, following India and China ($51bn and $32,5bn in 2022 respectively) in terms of imports of goods from the monarchy ($14,87bn in 2022). European countries such as Spain, France, and Italy are the top exporters of weapons to the Gulf state. The UAE ranks 12th in FDI stocks to the EU, but it is also believed that the Gulf monarchies perceive the West as one of their key destinations and locate their assets through the sovereign wealth funds. 

UAE and the East – India, China and Russia

India and China remain the UAE’s key trade partners, and the relationships are mutually beneficial. UAE maintains its position as one of the leading oil exporters to China and India, making the monarchy a crucial partner for the emerging and developing states. On the contrary, Russia falls behind the great powers in terms of trade (exports to Russia – $2,47bn, imports – $8,07bn in 2022), which is the result of imposed sanctions. However, there has been a noticeable surge in bilateral trade. The closure of the Western market has led to the redirection of Russian goods to other states, including the UAE. Generally, Abu Dhabi ranks first in the region as Russia’s main trade partner. 

It is worth adding that Abu Dhabi enhanced its strategic partnerships with New Delhi and Beijing. In 2018, China and the UAE upgraded their relations to a comprehensive strategic alliance covering fields such as politics, economy, security, and people-to-people ties. Similarly, the UAE and India concluded the Comprehensive Economic Strategic Partnership in 2022. The agreement allows both parties to expand economic and investment opportunities by gaining greater access to their markets on more favorable terms. 

As for the Emirati-Russian relationship, the two states also established a strategic partnership in 2015. In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, their bilateral relations blossomed. In consequence, the UAE became the final destination of the Russian inflow of businesses and investments, mainly in the real estate market. Despite the thriving relationship and finding a safe place for the Russian citizens, the UAE authorities refrain from crossing the red line imposed by the West, and their actions towards Russia, particularly in the outward FDI, remain limited. 

The aforementioned initiatives, such as IMEC or the Belt and Road Initiative, are supposed to expand alternative trade routes connecting India and China with Europe. The former project is at the initial stage of development, so the results remain to be seen. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, lies at the heart of the India-Middle East Economic Corridor, which is an additional advantage to their economy and standing vis-à-vis regional competitors. For China, the UAE remains the central trade point since 60% of goods from China to Europe and Africa pass through the Emirati ports. 


All things considered, the UAE has emerged as an influential state capable of forging strategic partnerships and alliances to strengthen its international role and broaden its economic opportunities. Even prior to its formal admission to the group, the UAE has already established its partnerships with India, China, and Russia. Participating in BRICS+ presents another opportunity for the UAE to deepen its existing relations with Eastern countries and boost economic development. It should be noted that BRICS+ is a loose format, with each member pursuing a foreign policy in line with its national interest. In other words, creating a clear vision and framework is challenging due to states‘ different perceptions regarding their relations with the US and their competition for regional and global leadership. Furthermore, while BRICS+ is primarily focused on economic matters, some Western states claim it also aims to challenge the US and its hegemonic status. In other words, there are many disagreements both within the group and on the international stage. 

Relations with any state, specifically from the West and East, offer a wide range of opportunities. The UAE-US alliance will remain crucial for the Gulf state’s security since there is no other actor capable of providing a similar framework for the region. For the small states, security guarantees are vital for the state’s survival and successful accomplishment of its visions. For the EU, Arab states are a source of FDI and energy resources, but with a new strategy presented in 2022, there are more options to come. Cooperation with the East and the West can also be regarded as complementary. However, one should keep in mind the contemporary state of relations between the US and other global powers since systemic factors like the Sino-American rivalry or tensions between Russia and the West also affect the current state of relations with the Gulf and the states’ strategic choices.

Photo credit: 15th BRICS SUMMIT, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; URL: