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Ukrainians in the UAE reflect on two years in geopolitical limbo

They are living the best life they can in tragic circumstances not of their choosing

Yoy Dubai Yoy
Several food businesses are owned and run by Ukrainians, including the highly praised Yoy restaurant on the Palm

After more than two years of war at home, the Ukrainians who have made the UAE their haven have had time to reflect.

Compared with the Russians – about whom I’ve written on a couple of occasions – their story is more complex and more poignant.

They are living the best life they can in tragic circumstances not of their choosing, their careers derailed and families uprooted, at the mercy of the fortunes of war and the strategic forces that shape it. They are in a state of geopolitical limbo.

These observations are based on lengthy conversations with five leaders of the Ukrainian community in the UAE: a corporate lawyer, an official, a human rights activist, a media editor and a well-known writer.

All spoke on terms of anonymity in view of the precariousness of their, and their country’s, predicament.

Some numbers: hard statistics are difficult to come by, but informed estimates suggest around 30,000 Ukrainians have residency in the UAE – double the pre-invasion population – including dependents. Perhaps another 100,000 have come to the country on short-term visit visas.

That is far smaller than the Russian community, which is estimated at around 700,000 residents and 1 million-plus tourists.

When the war started, displaced Ukrainians had other alternatives, in Europe, the US and (especially) Canada, whereas for most Russians, especially those facing western sanctions, the “neutral” UAE was an attractive option.

“It was a safe and comfortable place for Ukrainians in danger looking for security and safety,” said the official.

The human rights lawyer – who was already living and working in the UAE – spent a lot of time helping new arrivals in the months immediately after the war began, and remains grateful that the UAE authorities awarded them special visa status as “nationals of countries facing war and disaster”, although that curtails their ability to travel outside the country.

Because men of military age are not allowed by law to leave Ukraine, there is a larger proportion of women and children among the new arrivals. The majority of my “focus group” was female.

There was already significant UAE-Ukraine trade before the war, with the Emirates the second-largest GCC market for exports in 2021. 

Ukrainians and Russians will encounter each other socially and sometimes at work, and have to get on or risk their place in the UAE

Progress towards a free trade agreement between the two countries – plans for which were announced in late 2022 – has been slow but is ongoing. It is difficult to imagine this being concluded while the war rages.

A fully functioning business council based in Dubai has been helping newly arrived business people to start up and market themselves in the Emirates. This has been a generally smooth process, despite some challenges with the UAE banking system.

“There were some extra due diligence procedures on Ukrainians in the early days, but these have generally been smoothed out, helped by the fact there are no sanctions on Ukrainians,” said the commercial lawyer.

Preferred occupations among newcomers are in IT, services, commodities trading, and food and retail. Several restaurant and coffee shop businesses are owned and run by Ukrainians, including the popular Yoy restaurant on the Palm, which was recommended by each of my five sources. (Worth a separate review, I think.)

Adult, Female, PersonYoy
Ukrainian restaurant Yoy was recommended by all

The tricky issue to discuss was relations with the large community of Russian exiles. Overt signs of allegiance – flags and symbols – are not allowed in the UAE, and there have been no protests or demonstrations.

There have only been a few whispered reports of confrontations between Russians and Ukrainians. But there is virtually zero contact between them.

“I had no Russian friends before the war, and I certainly don’t have any now,” said the corporate lawyer.

The media editor was equally damning: “I have some acquaintances, not friends. But even the ones who are against Putin are still imperialistic in their attitude towards us.”

The writer explained: “It is more complex. Ukrainians and Russians in the UAE will encounter each other socially and sometimes at work, and have to get on or risk their place in the UAE.”

All were worried about events back home, and about the safety of family and friends under bombardment. All had a friend or relative who had died in the war.

But – unlike most of the Russians to whom I’ve talked in Dubai – they were keen to get back to their country for reconstruction when conditions were right, which they all defined as “victory”.

They will remain grateful to the UAE as a place of refuge, and may use their experience here to expand business in the Middle East and beyond, but Ukraine is their home.

“I do not want to escape from Ukraine. I will die on my land, not abroad,” said the corporate lawyer, tears welling up.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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