'If a stranger refuses to pet my Russian dog, what treatment can I expect for myself?'
Geetanjali Krishna reports from Dubai.
In Dubai's upscale and buzzing Jumeirah Beach Residences (JBR), Nalini Sinha walks her dogs.
"Nyet!, nyet!, (no!, no!)," she says in Russian as they sniff at a tourist in the Emirate's glitzy seaside promenade.
"Idi syuda! (come here!)" The tourist asks if the dogs are Ukrainian or Russian, saying she would pet them only if they were Ukrainian.
"They are Indian dogs who happen to have a Russian trainer," Sinha replies warily.
Nearby, in a plush service apartment of a luxury hotel chain, Atul Kumar's family stands by their beach-facing window, looking at the crowds of people on the promenade.
"When we were compelled to move from Moscow after Putin declared war on Ukraine on February 24, I was not able to transfer money from my Russian bank account here," says Kumar.
"Tripadvisor tells me there are 242 restaurants and cafes in JBR, but my children are unable to buy even ice cream from any of them."
Their meals and stay are being sponsored by his employer, but they have little cash in hand at the moment.
Kumar refers to himself as a "corporate refugee", one of the many Indian multinational executives who were posted in Moscow and who now find themselves on the wrong side of a war they have no stake in.
The Indian high commission in Moscow estimates that about 500 businessmen, 300 registered companies, 4,500 students and a hundred-odd executives like Kumar and Sinha, working for multinational companies like Unilever, Starbucks, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Shell, are there in Moscow and other Russian cities.
Some Indians also work for the Russian offices of financial giants like American Express, Visa and MasterCard, and consultancy firms like Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC.
"As soon as the war was declared, Moscow transformed from the glittering global metro it used to be into a scary police State," Kumar says.
Under pressure from the West, as MNCs, credit card companies and financial institutions began unwinding investments and closing shop in Russia, locals and the remaining Indian Diaspora began feeling the heat.
The big impact on their lifestyle came from stricter censorship.
"We could not access news Web sites of major Russian-language outlets based outside the country," Kumar says.
"We couldn't even access Facebook -- the government probably did this to prevent any criticism of the war getting out of the country."
March onwards, he says, freedom of speech became a thing of the past.
"People could be arrested for protesting against the war," he says. "In fact, for using the word 'war' on social media or in a news article or broadcast, one could get a 15-year jail sentence!" Instead, the Kremlin refers to it as a 'special military operation'.
In mid-March, Sinha's husband saw a foreign student being violently frisked on Red Square on suspicion of being a placard-carrying protestor (it turned out he was carrying a college project in the cylinder that caught the police's attention).
Their company decided it was time to leave. They were not alone. All MNCs, including Kumar's company, based in the UK, were relocating their Moscow-based employees to safer havens.
For the Sinhas and the Kumars, both Indian passport holders, leaving Moscow was complicated.
As they had not travelled during the pandemic years, their European Schengen visas had expired.
"Getting a new Schengen visa in Moscow was impossible and returning to India was not an option as my husband is now working out of Europe," Sinha says.
Just like it has been for oligarchs like tycoon Roman Abramovich, who is facing sanctions by the UK and EU, the shifting sands of Dubai proved to be the best, and possibly the only viable option for Kumar and Sinha.
Not only has Abu Dhabi refused to take sides between the West and Moscow, residence visas are relatively easy to acquire in the United Arab Emirates even without local sponsors.
The Emirate grants visas to individuals who purchase a property worth AED 5 million ($1.5 million), register a company or find a job there.
And at a time when Russian assets and funds are being frozen across Europe, Dubai has become a cryptocurrency hub in the region.
Kumar and his family left the house they had lived in for the last five years without even packing up their belongings.
"A packing company will ship it all to wherever we are in the next few months," he says.
"We were lucky to get both my children into a school in Dubai, and are taking one day at a time."
Sinha is applying for a residency permit although she does not know if this is going to be their permanent home.
However, even in Dubai, both families are wary of disclosing where they have come from.
"If a stranger refuses to pet my Russian dog, what treatment can I expect for myself?" Sinha asks.
"I can't help but contrast this with the openhearted welcome accorded to Ukrainian refugees all over."
Uncertainty clouds the future of Indian executives like Kumar and Sinha.
Their money and belongings still in Russia, life in glitzy Dubai is a dubious pleasure.
"My children keep asking when we will return to Moscow again so that they can see their friends and school," Kumar says.
"How can I tell them that all their friends have left, that Moscow is a shadow of itself?"
With the geo-political conflict in the region unlikely to abate in the coming months, one thing is clear -- free trade hubs like Dubai are going to see more "corporate refugees" than ever before.
All names have been changed to protect the identities of the respondents on their request.