UAE’s Troubling Support for Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa

UAE’s Troubling Support for Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa

One targeted company, Industrial Resources General Trading, is a Dubai-based company sanctioned for importing gold from the Central African Republic and paying the Russian mercenary outfit in cash sent directly to Moscow. It is the first Emirati company sanctioned in relation to Wagner. OFAC previously targeted another United Arab Emirates (UAE) based firm, Kratol Aviation, for providing aircraft to the group. But whereas Kratol’s owners were Russian nationals, Industrial Resources is owned and operated by a family of Dubai traders.

The UAE now finds itself embroiled in well-deserved controversy as evidence mounts to implicate the mineral-rich Gulf country in support of Wagner’s operations across the African continent. And the illicit partnership is raising eyebrows in Washington.

In 2020, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) determined that “the United Arab Emirates may provide some financing for the group’s operations.”At that time, US intelligence officials expressed concerns that the UAE had inked what amounted to a “memorandum of understanding” with Wagner that was suspected of including financial assistance, and was bankrolling “at least some of Wagner’s forces.”

Since then, the UAE’s reported support for Wagner Group’s activities has become a more prominent feature of discussions between the US and its Middle East allies.

In February, reports emerged that Wagner had “deployed thousands of operatives in African and Middle Eastern countries including Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria” with an eye toward supporting Russian interests, and against the backdrop of intense global competition on the resource-rich continent.

The origins of the cooperation between the UAE and Wagner Group trace back to a meeting between Russia’s Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, and the UAE’s National Security Adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In January 2019, Patrushev visited Abu Dhabi to “hold consultations on security issues” with special emphasis on developments in Libya.

The UAE and Wagner Group deepened their alliance when they participated in efforts to fuel the conflict in Libya through joint military operations. Wagner contractors joined UAE-backed rebel general Khalifa Haftar who was then opposing the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli. The Russian mercenaries acted as ground forces, while the UAE provided air strike and logistics support by operating drones and fighters. In March 2021, the UN issued a report implicating the UAE in backing the operations of Wagner Group and Haftar’s forces.The 14 month-siege ultimately ended in failure. But the UAE-Wagner tag team was instrumental in efforts by rebel  forces to maintain control over eastern Libya.

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