Russia’s comeback to the Middle East and North Africa region under Vladimir Putin’s presidency had a game changing impact. The Kremlin ended the rebels’ advance against Syrian President Bashar Assad through its military intervention, beginning in 2015. Moscow and the UAE, apparently, have come to an understanding that Assad must stay in power. Libya has been a scene where Russia confronted the internationally-recognized government, attempting to install Khalifa Haftar as the country’s ruler. Mohammed Dahlan appears as a good mixer, developing warm relations with Russians on the common point that both are suspicious of Islamists. Tasked with undermining the armed struggle of the Syrian opposition as well as allegedly helping the mainstream Muslim rhetoric to combat radical Islamism within Russian territories, Dahlan, in return, has been seeking Russia’s support for its cause to become Palestinian Authority’s leader, pushing Mahmoud Abbas out.
“[Dahlan] began working as an informal UAE emissary to the Kremlin, helping coordinate the UAE’s military action to cooperate with Russian interests.”
Daily Mail, 12 March 2018
A 2018-dated Daily Mail report described Dahlan as a “conduit from the UAE to Putin’s Kremlin,” underlining his fluency in Russian and claiming that he was “working as an informal UAE emissary to the Kremlin, helping coordinate the UAE’s military action to cooperate with Russian interests.” Quoting an anonymous source, the report stated that Dahlan’s role in UAE-Russia relations was not simply to provide advice but “going on secret missions, meeting at the Kremlin on behalf of MBZ [Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE’s de facto ruler].”
It is not clear what secret missions Dahlan has been fulfilling in Russia. Still, it is evident that he has developed solid relations. So much so that that he has been appointed as a member of the board of trustees of Mariinsky Theater by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It remains a mystery whether Dahlan has developed a passion for the arts, this reveals that he managed to wriggle himself into Putin’s inner circle, attending Putin-chaired meetings of the theater.
Dahlan has been seeking Russian help to beat his former friends and current foes, primarily Mahmoud Abbas. In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Dahlan declared his intention for a reconciliation with the Fatah leadership. This meeting was held on November 2 in Moscow, allegedly at the request of the UAE. Russia invited Abbas as well on November 23 for further talks. One of Dahlan’s aides, Dimitri Diliani told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on November 5 that “Russia is mediating to bring about a reconciliation within the Fatah movement, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is mediating and deploying efforts to put an end to the Fatah division between Dahlan’s current and Abbas’ Fatah movement.” Diliani also stated that “Dahlan announced during the meeting with Lavrov his readiness for internal reconciliation in Fatah.” However, bizarrely he denied these statements later. A Fatah official told the Anadolu Agency that they had no intention to reconcile with Dahlan. However, Dahlan seems to be eager to appear as an alternative to the current Palestinian administration given the fact that the Fatah general conference has been scheduled for March 2022. He has recently been signaling in the Arab media that he was willing to turn back to the Palestinian politics soon.
Earlier this year, Dahlan sent a delegation to Moscow to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. This delegation was headed by Samir al-Masharawi, one of the founders of Dahlan’s Fatah Democratic Reform group. While Russian diplomats pledged their support for reconciliation within the Fatah movement, such attempts were refused by Abbas.
This was not Dahlan’s first attempt to convince Russians to mediate the rivalry within the Fatah leadership. In 2018, in an interview with Russia Today, he tried to please Russians by saying that the US would never accept an independent Palestine, describing the “deal of century” as a “disaster.” Instead, he proposed the creation of a united Israel for both Palestinians and Israelis with Jerusalem as the common capital. Russia does not support such an idea and adheres to two state solution while refrains from supporting the Palestinian cause to an extend that would harm its relations with Israel. Despite this, Dahlan seems to be a good option for Russians in Palestine. For instance, Leonid Slutsky, the First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs suggested in 2018 that the Israelis hold a meeting with Lavrov and Dahlan.
Dahlan has benefitted from the opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Through his close relations with both the Russians and UAE, Dahlan organized the delivery of Russia-made Sputnik V vaccination to Gaza without any objection from Israel. He also convinced the UAE to pay for these vaccines. On 21 February, the first batch of vaccines arrived in Gaza via Egypt. The first batch contained 20,000 doses while Abbas administration’s shipment was confined to only 2,000 doses. Dahlan thanked the UAE for the support. More importantly, Hamas, which Dahlan attempted to overthrow in 2007, thanked ‘comrade Dahlan.’ One month later, Dahlan secured the shipment of another 40,000 Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza.
How Russia benefits from Dahlan
Obviously, Russians have not been courting Dahlan in exchange for nothing. Dahlan might have had a role in curbing Syrian opposition groups’ ability to procure weapons. In fact, UAE did provide the rebels with weapons, again, with Dahlan’s possible intervention. For instance, in 2015, Switzerland suspended arms sales to the UAE on the grounds that these weapons were ending up at the hands of undesired groups in Syria. The rift with Turkey, which has been backing the rebels and carried out several military incursions to Syria’s north, convinced the UAE to refrain from backing the anti-regime elements in Syria. This policy has evolved into diplomatic support for the Assad regime. The UAE, along with Algeria, has been pushing the Arab League to remove Syria’s suspension.
In 2017, Dahlan was tasked by Russia with holding talks with opposition groups. The aim was to persuade them to either submit to the Assad regime or accept presidential and parliamentary elections. This task coincided with the Astana talks, held among Turkey, Russia and Iran, and observed by the UAE and Egypt. It is also noteworthy that Dahlan has been backing Ahmad al-Jarba, a prominent member of the Syrian opposition. Dahlan even attended the inauguration of al-Jarba’s Tomorrow Movement in Cairo in 2015. He again appeared during al-Jarba’s announcement of his political party, again held in the Egyptian capital. This time Dahlan was together with Russia’s ambassador to Egypt. Al-Jarba visitedMoscow to hold a meeting with Lavrov in November 2021. Also, Dahlan has been promoting Randa Kassis, a woman and non-Islamist figure within the opposition. In conclusion, Dahlan has been fulfilling the duty to seek a way for reconciliation between the opposition groups and the regime while picking up the most suitable opposition figures, which basically mean that they should be non-Islamist and preferably unsupported by Ankara.Dahlan’s other favor to Russia would be the recruitment of some prominent figures of Russian Muslim communities with the aim of eliminating Moscow’s fears over rapidly expanding radical ideas within the country. This allegation overlaps with UAE’s involvement in Chechenya in terms of favoring a softer Islam that doesn’t allow growth of jihadism in the region. UAE’s relations with Chechenya under Ramazan Kadyrov’s leadership has grown solid. To the extent that one of main roads in Grozny was named Mohammed bin Zayed. In exchange of their great respect to UAE rulers, Chechens asked them to invest $2.3 billion. It is unknown whether Dahlan has a role in mediating relations with the Chechens. However, there are claims that he has recruited Tartars for combatting so-called jihadism among Russia’s Muslims. A prolific writer on the threats posed by the expansion of jihadist ideology against Tartars and other Muslim communities, and therefore against the Russian state, Rais Suleimanov was allegedly recruited by Dahlan for the purpose of fearmongering.