The UFC returned to Abu Dhabi for the first time in five years last week with a Pay-Per-View show headlined by a lightweight title bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. And though the event was arguably more successful than their previous two ventures into the United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital, it was not without its controversial moments, including the appearance of Ramzan Kadyrov.
Though the UFC attempted to keep the Chechen dictator off the official broadcast, he made a brief cameo on screen following Islam Makhachev’s decision victory during the main card. Kadyrov, who has been repeatedly accused of rounding up and torturing Chechen citizens based on their sexual orientation, as well as countless other human rights atrocities, was standing in the front row alongside notorious henchmen such as Adam Delimkhanov. He embraced Makhachev like a brother and congratulated him on the victory. He also celebrated with Nurmagomedov following the champ’s victory, though the UFC managed to keep that off their broadcast.
Kadyrov’s appearance at the UFC 242 show is yet another example of the Chechen dictator using sports as a tool for political gain. This time, however, he tried to strike two birds with the same stone.
Russia’s Sunni Muslim Envoy in the Gulf
Over the past decade, Ramzan Kadyrov has emerged not only as one of the most influential political figures in Russia, but also as a face representing nearly 20 million Russian Muslims. His republic operates under sharia law — which is unconstitutional according to Russian law — and is home to the two largest mosques in Russia, the ‘Heart of Chechnya’ and the ‘Pride of Muslims’. As a result, Kadyrov is well positioned to act as a conduit for an increasingly close relationship between Russia and Sunni Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.
In 2017, he assumed the role of Putin’s Sunni Muslim envoy and travelled to Bahrain, where he met with King Hamad and “reviewed bilateral relations,” mainly through renewed economic cooperation. During his stay, Kadyrov visited with King Hamad’s sons Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Khalid, both of whom are heavily involved in the sports affairs of the kingdom and use them as a form of diplomacy with the Chechen leader among others. Ultimately, Kadyrov’s trip to Bahrain paved the way for the kingdom to improve its economic relations with both Chechnya and Russia overall. He has also cultivated ties with the United Arab Emirates, including de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who set up the Zayed Fund in Chechnya to fund local ventures in 2017.
In light of Kadyrov’s increased economic ties to the UAE and its ruling family, it comes as no surprise that the Chechen dictator was seen at the UFC 242 event in the front row alongside the UAE’s Minister of Culture, Youth, and Social Development, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan.
This was not the first time that Sheikh Nahyan and Kadyrov had met. The UAE official participated in the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, in 2018. He visited the capital at the invitation of Kadyrov himself and was reportedly accompanied by Sheikh Mohammed bin Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Sheikh Mubarak bin Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Saeed Ahmed Ghobash, Chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University, and a number of other officials. The UAE’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Maadhad Hareb Mughair Al Khalili, was also present.
During Sheikh Nahyan’s speech at the ceremony, the minister conveyed the greetings of greetings of the UAE ruler, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and said he wishes for further expansion of these relations based on “mutual trust and respect,” adding that the UAE is keen to strengthen aspects of cooperation with the Chechen Republic under the support of its leadership.
Since Kadyrov is now fundraising from rich monarchies in the Middle East, his appearance at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi is another example of sports diplomacy being used as a tool to increase bilateral relations. He made a similar gesture by attending the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA in Manama, Bahrain alongside Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and President of Bahrain Olympic Committee, and Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Honorary President of the Bahrain Mixed Martial Arts Federation (BMMAF) and the founder of MMA promotion Brave CF and fight club KHK MMA.
Apart from using UFC 242 as an opportunity to strengthen ties and enhance bilateral relations with the UAE, it was also a chance for Kadyrov to rebrand himself and his republic to his neighbours in the North Caucasus.
Kadyrov’s Dagestan Problem
In September 2018, Kadyrov and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the (now former) leader of Ingushetia, Chechnya’s western neighbour, signed an agreement securing the border between the two Russian republics. While the deal was promoted as “historic,” it included the transfer of 10% of Ingush territory to Chechnya, thus increasing the republic’s size and land at the expense of its neighbour.
As a result, unprecedented protests broke out in Ingushetia, lasting several months and growing in size until Yevkurov finally resigned on June 24, 2019. However, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that the border agreement between Ingushetia and Chechnya was legal, thus cementing Chechnya’s newfound land and engorged border. Emboldened by the success of his ambitious goal, Kadyrov set his sights on Chechnya’s Eastern border with Dagestan.
On December 7, 2018, the Head of Dagestan, Vladimir Vasilyev, revealed that he and Kadyrov plan to discuss border relations between their two republics, which raised concern among local Dagestanis as to whether history was about to repeat itself. Vasilyev later vowed not to repeat the “Ingush scenario” during the negotiations over eight disputed territories with Chechnya. Faced with pressure from Dagestani natives concerned with Kadyrov’s aggressive push into their territory, the border demarcation was suspended in April 2019. This emphasized Dagestan’s disregard for the Chechen leader and their lack of faith in his intentions.
Kadyrov made matters worse when he attacked Dagestani hero, Imam Shamil, the leader of the Caucasian resistance to Imperial Russia in the 1800s. Kadyrov claimed that Imam Shamil was responsible for the oppression of Chechen people at the time and that he burned down several Chechen villages during his reign. His words caused outrage in Dagestan. Local citizens, including athletes and celebrities, came out in support of Imam Shamil in direct opposition to Kadyrov’s baseless attack. Aware that he had overstepped his bounds, Kadyrov backtracked on his comments by claiming he was misunderstood.
“I did not say a word about Dagestan, about its men and women,” Kaydrov said. “I spoke about ‘false heroes’ who swore at me, my people, and the people of my father. They are shaitans – they are not Muslims; they are not descendants of Imam Shamil.”
In light of Kadyrov’s public relations blunders in Dagestan, the Chechen dictator began to associate himself with Nurmagomedov more than ever before. He gifted Nurmagomedov with an expensive car, and even made him an honourary citizen of Chechnya. This had a clear impact on Nurmagomedov, who began to use his social media platforms to minimize the tension between the two republics.
“I have a question for all who are concerned about the situation regarding the lands on the border with Chechnya: has there ever been a fixed and clear border between our fraternal peoples? As I know, the fellow countrymen living there on the border knew approximately who had what territory. And now, when we began to set boundaries, respectively, dividing us on a subconscious level, we split, and in this split, I see the guilty on both sides. We must reckon with the people, and we must collect people and share plans with the people. We have power that is responsible for this. This is a very difficult situation in which a special approach is needed. My opinion is that everyone needs to get together, both politicians and elders, and residents of this region and solve this problem; meet each other with respect and with love for the sake of Allah. I have always considered and will continue to consider the Chechens as brothers; for this purpose, it is enough just to look into the history. May Allah guide us on the true path and give us patience and correct understanding in this troubled time.”
By associating with Nurmagomedov, Kadyrov is effectively rubbing shoulders with one of the most popular athletes in Russia and arguably the single most recognizable face in Dagestan. It is a subtle way to rebrand himself as a benevolent leader who supports Dagestani interests. His appearance in Abu Dhabi to support Nurmagomedov further cements his varnished image and could potentially ease the path for him to reach an agreement on the border demarcation with Dagestan.
In any case, the UFC has once again allowed its significant platform to be used as a means for diplomatic and political gain amongst authoritarian regimes. Despite their indirect role in this situation, the UFC has chosen not to respond to a request for comment.