It is not every day that someone invites you to Ekaterinburg, Russia to chair a global manufacturing summit with President Vladimir Putin as the keynote speaker. I am not a Russian newbie, having travelled to Moscow and St. Petersburg a half dozen times on assignment, but it is the first time I touched down in Russia’s heartland, bang in the middle of the Eurasian continent.

Ekaterinburg, as history buffs would surmise, is named after the Catherine the Great, the wife of Tsar Peter. This city on the Iset River was the mining capital of the Russia empire dating back to the late 18th century and remains formidable in size, as the country’s fourth largest city.

Contrary to first instincts, it is modern by all of today’s barometers – a modern skyline and a new airport that can rival those in the Middle East, and a sizeable conference centre which hosted the Global Manufacturing and Innovation Summit (GMIS) with some 6,000 attendees.

The GMIS is the brainchild of the UAE government and the Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) to explore the nexus of the fourth industrial revolution and United Nations’ “sustainable development goals” or SDGs.

My opening plenary session, after the keynote by Putin, involved the UAE Minister of Energy and Industry, Suhail Al Mazroui, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Group Chief Executive of Mubadala Investment Company, Li Yong, Director-General of Unido and host Denis Manturov, the Minister of Industry and Trade for Russia.

We have all read about the change that is at our doorstep over the next decade because of artificial intelligence (AI) – with projections that up to a half billion jobs will be lost to automation by 2030. But it’s the first time I have witnessed an effort to dovetail that work with sustainability.

As Li suggested during our panel, there is no option but to address these issues concurrently and focus our attention on those who are the least able to cope with the speed of change. He signalled out time and again the least developed countries, especially in Africa.

The trade worries drag on

The panel all shared their concerns that the biggest threat to deal with the pace of change that is at our doorstep is the constant ratcheting up of US sanctions, whether it is against China, Iran, Venezuela or Russia. We have entered a very odd phase of diplomacy where US President Donald Trump can playfully suggest to his counterpart not to intervene in American elections while at the G20 Summit in Osaka, and at the same time maintain intense economic sanctions that keep the pressure on Moscow.

Manturov said during our panel that what does not kill you makes you stronger. US sanctions forced Russia to make swifter reforms to become less import dependent as Washington moved to cut off funding in dollars, as it targeted both Russian oligarchs and major lending institutions.

While the AI and SDG narrative was a worthy one, I could not miss how all those attending the event made it to Ekaterinburg, on the account of a deepening bilateral partnership between the UAE and Russia. The GMIS was founded in the UAE and works with Unido, but they chose Russia to advance what is a decade-long relationship that is both geo-strategic and investment driven.

When the Obama administration was advancing the nuclear agreement with Iran, the UAE tilted east to China, India and Russia as a counterweight to Washington. In Vladimir Putin, they have a partner who maintains close ties with Iran and Syria, which can help undertake regional security matters.

The UAE is also one of the few countries that can serve as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow, with links to both.

But there is another channel tied to business collaboration, mainly through two high-profile sovereign funds – Mubadala in the UAE and the Russia Direct Investment Fund. Al Mubarak, the chief executive of MIC, said they have conducted 50 transactions with Russia since 2013, with $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) invested and a pledge to take that up to $6 billion.

I recall a symbolic turning point when Al Mubarak joined President Putin’s annual plenary session in St Petersburg, at the height of US and European sanctions, when strategic ties were bonded.

Fast forward to the event in Ekaterinburg. It was a faraway but sizeable venue to debate two major future challenges – AI and climate change and a display of soft power to advance bilateral relations.

John Defterios is Emerging Markets Editor at CNNMoney.