Russians have always been part of the odd cultural mosaic of Dubai’s marina, with its yachts and chain cafes, gyms and cosmetic surgery clinics, mosques and bars. But since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a torrent of newcomers has arrived — no longer seeking refuge from bitter winters, but from war and international sanctions.
“Putin’s a terrorist, and I don’t want to go to war for his ambitions,” said Sergei Tulinov, 35, a tattoo artist from Kaliningrad who sold his business and moved to Dubai shortly after Russia announced a partial military mobilization in late September. “I see no reason to defend my homeland when no one attacked it.”
He chose Dubai for its high living standards, low taxes, and easy visa requirements for Russians, saying “there’s none of the Russophobia that’s growing elsewhere in the world because of the war.”
With tattoos less popular in the Middle East than at home, Tulinov plans to open a beauty salon specializing in permanent cosmetics for Dubai’s image-obsessed “glitterati.”
This cosmopolitan city-state in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has long positioned itself as a nonaligned haven for global wealth and finance. Now, the UAE’s decision not to join Western sanctions against Moscow over its war in Ukraine has made Dubai a new hub for fortune-seeking Russians, who see much of the rest of the world closed off to them.
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Russians can get a 90-day tourist visa upon entry and can obtain residency through an employer or a new freelance visa program.
According to property brokerage Betterhomes, Russians were the largest single group of nonresident buyers from July to September this year. Many of these “investment properties” in the marina are empty, while others are rented out by their owners — either is a convenient way to park money. Some purchases are reportedly being made with cryptocurrency, a popular avenue for skirting sanctions.
The UAE does not publish a breakdown of residents’ nationalities, but Russians here talk of hundreds of thousands of new arrivals since the war. Several Western banks — including JP Morgan and Bank of America — have moved staff from Russia to Dubai in response to sanctions. Data from Russia’s federal statistics agency shows that between July and September, some 277,000 of its citizens traveled to the Emirates — more than three times as many as compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
Olesya Sabra, an English teacher from southern Russia, arrived just days before the war broke out, seeking a fresh start in a sunny spot near the sea. She quickly set up a network of nearly 300 students, mostly from the marina and other upscale neighborhoods. The majority are Russians or Russian speakers rushing to learn Dubai’s working language. “Everywhere you go you hear Russian,” she said. People have Russianized the city’s name — they call it ‘Dubaisk’ now.”
An increasing number of her students are men of military age, she said: “I used to teach primarily young women seeking a rich husband, now it’s mostly young men who show up barely speaking English and trying to find work here.”
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Unlike the rush of men who fled haphazardly to countries bordering Russia in the wake of Putin’s mobilization announcement, the Russians arriving in Dubai generally have more money and more ambitious plans. Many see a chance to invest in a place that has become one of 2022’s few economic success stories — driven by petrodollar-funded investment, as well as a string of successful IPOs and a stock exchange that has consistently outperformed more established rivals.
Large Russian pavilions are ever-present at the city’s trade shows, sporting a “Made in Russia” marquee. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently traveled to the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi for meetings to expand on what both sides call a “strategic partnership”; UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met Putin in Russia in October. As one prominent Russian lawmaker noted last month, the UAE is the leading Arab destination for Russian investments and is the largest Arab investor in Russia.
But the UAE’s fast and loose quest for growth has spurred some criticism. In March, the Paris-based intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force placed the UAE on its “gray list” of countries not doing enough to combat money laundering and illegal financial activities. The UAE has said it is committed to working with the FATF toward improvement. Either way, thanks to cryptocurrency, Russians in Dubai say they have no problem moving funds, even if sanctions mean most of their bank cards don’t work.
On The Palm, a man-made island next to the marina, a moneyed Russian business clique travels between meetings in million-dollar Maybach limos and Brabus custom sports rigs, flanked by bodyguards, then retreat to luxury resorts. Nearby, several sanctioned oligarchs, including members of Putin’s inner circle, have moored their superyachts.
“Despite all the news, business within Russia is still booming, and these guys need working bank accounts — especially for dealing with Europe,” said business consultant Adel Maher, who has seen a surge in demand from Russians looking to set up businesses and establish residency so they can use Dubai as a go-between for transferring money between Russia and Europe.
Tulinov, the tattoo artist, has more modest aims. Like many new arrivals, he didn’t wait around to see if he’d received a draft card.
“I’ve lost five military friends killed in Ukraine, it’s terrible. Most of the young people in Russia, they don’t believe the propaganda, that’s the older generation,” he said.
“When I left, every authority asked me when I’d return,” he added. “I won’t.”
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For others, Dubai is simply a stopover. At one cafe in the marina, a half-dozen Russian men in their 20s had breakfast before logging on for remote work. All had plans to avoid military service if they received what they called “the invitation.”
“In Moscow I felt pressure all around me, every day you are waiting for something bad to happen,” said Bogdan, 27, an IT worker who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals. “Every conversation leads to war.”
Bogdan said he usually travels to escape the Russian winter, but he plans to stay abroad for longer this year. “I love Moscow so I’ll be back. And Russia’s my home. I just hope I will not be forced someday to leave it forever.”
Natalya Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
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