Russia & Global South
Understanding the Russian Exodus to Dubai Following the Ukraine Invasion
May 10, 2024
  •  Natalia Savelyeva

    PhD, Lecturer at the UW-Madison, researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory
Sociologist Natalya Savelyeva explores the identities of the Russians who settled in Dubai after the onset of the war in Ukraine, examining whether the common belief that they are apolitical and solely concerned with their personal safety and wealth is accurate.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent Western sanctions triggered a new wave of emigration from Russia and redirected tourist flows. The UAE, specifically Dubai, has become one of the most prominent locations for Russian emigrants, businesses and tourists. This report summarizes the pilot stage of a study aimed at understanding the specificities of post-invasion Russian emigration to Dubai, focusing on the well-off segment of the population. How is emigration to the UAE, specifically to Dubai, different from other destinations? Who are the people who choose Dubai over other options and why? How did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impact the flow of Russians there?

Dubai proved to be a comfortable place for those who wanted or had to leave Russia for different reasons. The UAE maintained direct flights to and from Russia after the war started, with flights from Moscow to Dubai. Later, Pobeda, a low-cost subsidiary of Aeroflot, began flights to Dubai from Moscow in January 2023 and from Vladikavkaz and Volgograd in October of the same year. A round-trip flight from Moscow to Dubai cost about $120 in February 2023. Russians also do not need a visa to enter the country. They can open bank accounts if they have a local employment contract – or enough money and buy property in the UAE. Additionally, Dubai boasts a favorable tax system: there is no income tax, luxury tax or inheritance tax. English is a common language of communication, as expats constitute the majority of the population. Finally, the hostility toward Russians in Dubai is not palpable compared to other countries.

There are no official statistics from the government regarding the number of Russians who have obtained UAE residency. Over a million Russians visited the Emirates in 2022 — a 60% increase from the previous year. According to some sources, in 2023 some 2,024 million Russians and East Europeans visited the UAE, constituting 13% of all tourists, while 700,000 had obtained UAE residency (including dependents). Some research suggests that Russians have now become the single largest nationality in Dubai, which is the main destination for emigration from Russia in the UAE. Recently, the real estate agency Betterhomes reported that in the second quarter of 2023, Russians were the third largest nationality among property buyers in Dubai.

It is fair to say that many individuals choosing Dubai as their place of residence possess significant wealth. A New York Timesarticle highlighted a noticeable shift in the destinations of private jets departing from Russia: whereas before the invasion only 3% of them were bound for the UAE, with the majority heading to European capitals, by May 2022 this figure had risen to 14%. Both sanctioned by the West and persecuted by Russia, rich Russian citizens also try to find a safe haven in the UAE. For example Andrey Melnichenko, Russia's eighth richest man in 2022 by Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion, ceded ownership of two of the world's largest coal and fertilizers companies to his wife and fled the UAE after being sanctioned.

The dynamics of the real estate market in Dubai offer some insights into the patterns of emigration. The entrance of Russians into the UAE real estate market in 2022 led to a boom in prices. However, by the third quarter of 2023, this wave had subsided. The weakening of the ruble, as well as the fact that everyone who wanted to buy property had already done so, contributed to this trend. Although in terms of real estate purchases Russian citizens rank behind nationals of India and the UK and just ahead of Egyptian and Emiratis, their average spending on property is nearly double that of other nationalities, at $1.1 million. Russians demonstrate a preference for villas over apartments and tend to seek new homes that are ready for immediate occupancy, rather than those that are off-plan or on the secondary market. Additionally, they often prefer to live in close proximity to fellow Russians.

The business relationship between Russia and the UAE was boosted by the war, as well. In 2021, the UAE's imports from Russia were valued at £3.7 billion, but within a year, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, direct trade surged, more than doubling to £8.2 billion. The UAE has become one of the top five destinations for Russian companies seeking to open franchises.
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