By ISABEL DEBRE and JON GAMBRELL
RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In the dusty, northern-most sheikhdom of the United Arab Emirates, where laborers cycle by rustic tea shops, one of the world’s largest yachts sits in a quiet port — so far avoiding the fate of other luxury vessels linked to sanctioned Russian oligarchs.
The display of lavish wealth is startling in one of the UAE’s poorest emirates, a 90-minute drive from the illuminated high-rises of Dubai. But the 118-meter (387-foot) Motor Yacht A’s presence in a Ras al-Khaimah creek also shows the UAE’s neutrality during Russia’s war on Ukraine as the Gulf country remains a magnet for Russian money and its oil-rich capital sees Moscow as a crucial OPEC partner.
Since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the seven sheikhdoms of the Emirates have offered a refuge for Russians, both those despairing of their country’s future as well as the mega-wealthy concerned about Western sanctions.
While much of the world has piled sanctions on Russian institutions and allies of President Vladimir Putin, the Emirates has not. It also avoids overt criticism of the war, which government readouts still refer to as the “Ukraine crisis.”
The Motor Yacht A belongs to Andrey Melnichenko, an oligarch worth some $23.5 billion, according to Forbes. He once ran the fertilizer producer Eurochem and SUEK, one the the world’s largest coal companies.
The European Union in March included Melnichenko in a mass list of sanctions on business leaders and others described as close to Putin. The EU sanctions noted he attended a Feb. 24 meeting Putin held the day of the invasion.
“The fact that he was invited to attend this meeting shows that he is a member of the closest circle of Vladimir Putin and that he is supporting or implementing actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability and security in Ukraine,” the EU said at the time.
Melnichenko resigned from the corporate positions he held in the two major firms, according to statements from the companies. However, he has criticized Western sanctions and denied being close to Putin.
Melnichenko could not be reached for comment through his advisers.
Already, authorities in Italy have seized one of his ships — the $600 million Sailing Yacht A. France, Spain and Britain as well have sought to target superyachts tied to Russian oligarchs as part of a wider global effort to put pressure on Putin and those close to him.
But the $300 million Motor Yacht A so far appears untouched. It flew an Emirati flag on Tuesday when Associated Press journalists observed the ship. Two crew members milled around the deck.
The boat’s last recorded position on March 10 put it off the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, just over 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) from Ras al-Khaimah. Satellite images from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show the vessel in Ras al-Khaimah’s creek beginning March 17, a week later.
Authorities in Ras al-Khaimah did not respond to a request for comment on the yacht’s presence. The UAE’s Foreign Ministry did not answer questions about the ship, but said in a statement to the AP that it takes “its role in protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously.”
But so far, the UAE has taken no such public action targeting Russia. The country abstained on a U.N. Security Council vote in February condemning Russia’s invasion, angering Washington.
The neutral response may stem from “the financial gain we’re seeing in Dubai in terms of new tourist arrivals, and Russian efforts to move assets and buy property,” said Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
The flow of Russian money — both legitimate and shady — is now an open secret in Dubai, where lavish hotels and beaches increasingly bustle with Russian speakers. State-run radio hosts cheerily describe a massive influx.
The UAE became one of the few remaining flight corridors out of Moscow. The Emirati government offered three-month multiple-entry visas upon arrival to all Russians, allowing major companies to easily transfer their employees from Moscow to Dubai. The private jet terminal at Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central has seen a 400% spike in traffic, the airport’s CEO recently told the AP.
Real estate agents have reported a surge of interest from Russians seeking to buy property in Dubai, particularly in the skyscrapers of Dubai Marina and villas on the Palm Jumeirah.
For those who want to move to the UAE, buying high-end property also helps secure a visa.
“Business is booming right now,” said Thiago Caldas, CEO of the Dubai-based property firm Modern Living, which now accepts cryptocurrency to facilitate sales with new Russian clients. “They have a normal life and don’t face restrictions.”
Caldas said inquiries from Russian clients in Dubai have multiplied by over 10 since the war, forcing his firm to hire three Russian-speaking agents to deal with the deluge.
With sanctions on Russian banks and businesses thwarting many citizens’ access to foreign capital, Russians are increasingly trying to bypass bank transfers through digital currencies in Dubai, said two cryptocurrency traders in the city, where they’re able to liquidate large sums of cash.
“It’s a safe haven. … The inflow from Russian accounts skyrocketed 300% days after the war in Ukraine began,” said a Russian crypto trader in Dubai, who spoke like the other on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala state investment company remains among the most active sovereign wealth funds in Russia, along with those of China and Qatar, according to calculations by Javier Capapé of IE University in Spain for the AP.
But pressure is growing. Late on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi posted a strongly worded video message in solidarity with Ukraine featuring local ambassadors from the world’s leading democracies as Russia’s foreign minister visits the region.
“We are united against Russia’s unjustifiable, unprovoked and illegal aggression,” said Ernst Peter Fischer, Germany’s ambassador to the UAE.
Follow Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre and www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.