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Ukraine’s first lady on Wednesday offered spirited support to her nation’s people while visiting the United Arab Emirates, a country that still remains open to Russia despite Western sanctions.

Olena Zelenska described her role and that of other first ladies and gentlemen in the world as a real power while speaking before a packed ballroom on International Women’s Day. She also applauded the work of the average Ukrainian amid the ongoing war.

“We are a force and we can continue to change the world,” Zelenska said at the Forbes 30/50 Summit via a translator.

Zelenska’s trip to the United Arab Emirates capital comes as the UAE remains one of the few direct routes out of Moscow — for both people fleeing conscription and for the wealthy who want to park their money in a nation with access to Western financial markets.


Already, the U.S. Treasury has expressed concerns with the Russian money flowing into Dubai’s red-hot real estate market. Meanwhile, the superyachts of Russian oligarchs also have repeatedly turned up in the Emirates since the start of Moscow’s war on Ukraine last year.

However, the UAE has voted against Russia’s invasion at the United Nations and has donated humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began. Her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has held multiple calls with UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Meanwhile, the UAE hosted the prisoner exchange that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December.

Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, speaks during International Women's Day in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on March 8, 2023.

Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, speaks during International Women’s Day in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Zelenska arrived in the UAE on Tuesday and met with Sheikh Mohammed at Qasr al-Bahar in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital. There, Sheikh Mohammed pledged $4 million to Zelenska’s foundation that will go toward the construction of orphanages, the Emirates’ state-run WAM news agency reported.


“Sheikh Mohammed reiterated the UAE’s commitment to the people of Ukraine through ongoing humanitarian aid, while stressing the importance of international and regional efforts aimed at reaching a political solution to re-establish security, stability and peace,” WAM said.

Zelenska has taken a more prominent role in promoting Ukraine since the war began. She met with U.S. first lady Jill Biden when the American president’s wife made a surprise, quick visit to Ukraine from Slovakia in May. She’s also traveled across the world, met leaders and told the United Nations in February: “We have the right to live free, not to be killed or tortured.”


Speaking before the crowd, Zelenska recounted the story of a schoolteacher still leading her students via a video call from a snowy street, even though power and internet connections remain shaky in the country. She also brought up a 30-year-old female combat medic killed in the fighting near Bakhmut in the east, which drew a gasp from the women gathered at the summit.

“We are inspired by the examples and I’m sure these exmaples will stay in our hearts forever,” Zelenska said.

She added, to cheers: “Ukrainian women and men have been adapting so fast that our enemies have not been able to come up with new challenges for us.”

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