After an intense rivalry that has lasted nearly a decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey’s public antagonism has shown signs of easing, raising speculation that geopolitical tensions may also heal.
“We don’t cherish any feuds with Turkey,” Anwar Gargash, the former UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told Bloomberg on January 7.
On March 12, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu likewise said there is no reason for Turkey not to resume ties with the UAE and its close ally Saudi Arabia, Anadolu Agency reported.
And in a rare sign of friendly communication between the two countries, the UAE‘s Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Turkey’s Minister of Industry and Technology congratulated one another for their countries’ respective space programs.
Turkish Minister Mustafa Varank tweeted on February 18 that increased international cooperation served world peace and that the UAE Hope Mission was worthy of praise.
In response, the UAE Minister of State Sarah Al Amiri tweeted in Turkish: “Thank you, we believe that space exploration is a way to build bridges and develop our collective human understanding. We wish Turkey a successful expedition to the moon in 2023. We believe it will further contribute to space exploration.”
The Arab League in early March condemned Turkey’s military activities in Syria, Libya, and Iraq.
Yet, despite these positive gestures, the Arab League in early March condemned Turkey’s military activities in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, and called on Ankara to “desist from provocative actions that undermine confidence-building and threaten the security and stability of the region.”
Turkey rejected the Arab League’s accusations and replied that the “insistence” of some countries targeting Ankara “is to cover up the subversive activities of those countries.”
Further complicating things is the fact that the UAE has attempted to form an anti-Turkey regional alliance in recent years, namely with countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt, and these renewed comments indicate that such deep-rooted antagonism has yet to heal.
And significantly, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt have shown more readiness towards resolving the Gulf diplomatic crisis, the UAE is less willing to follow suit. This means that Abu Dhabi could also hesitate to fully mend relations with Turkey, since Ankara sided with Doha during their diplomatic spat.
These divisions started over the Arab Spring revolutions ten years ago, which became a contentious issue for the UAE. Turkey along with Qatar provided help for the democratically elected post-revolution governments in Tunisia and Egypt. While the UAE perceived these transformations as threatening, particularly as parties tied to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood took power in these countries and became prominent opposition forces elsewhere. The UAE has long considered the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
With Saudi Arabia, the UAE bankrolled Egypt’s counter-revolution, and has also supported anti-Islamist political figures in Tunisia. Tensions later worsened after the UAE supported Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya against the Turkish-backed and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). The UAE also began supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria while Turkey had long backed the Syrian opposition.
The UAE has largely sought to undermine Turkey’s fledging ties with states in the Horn of Africa, to secure its own influence along the Bab el-Mandeb.
While some analysts have presented it as a primarily ideological rivalry, there is a geopolitical element as well. The UAE has largely sought to undermine Turkey’s fledging ties with states in the Horn of Africa, to secure its own influence along the Bab el-Mandeb, as it has in the Eastern Mediterranean while opposing Ankara’s presence in Libya. Ultimately it has tried to isolate Turkey to prevent it from gaining the upper hand in these areas.
Additionally, a key motive for the Abraham Accords last September, in which the UAE normalized ties with Israel, was to consolidate Abu Dhabi’s desired alliance against Ankara. The Emiratis aimed to strengthen security cooperation with the Israelis and collaborate over the Eastern Mediterranean, alongside securing Israel’s support for more authoritarian, anti-Turkey actors.
However, following Joe Biden’s presidential victory, such overt tensions have somewhat deflated. The resolution to the Gulf crisis following the Al-Ula summit on January 5 prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to show public warmth towards Turkey, as they sought to create a more diplomatic image to appease the Biden administration.
Turkey has also extended its diplomatic outreach, showing receptivity towards restoring ties with Israel, according to Turkish officials. Turkey and Egypt have shown signs of rapprochement in March. Thus, Abu Dhabi’s aims of consolidating an anti-Turkey alliance have clearly faltered.
There may also be increasing battle-weariness between Ankara and Abu Dhabi in different regional contexts, which are proving fruitless. In Libya, while Turkey’s support helped the Government of National Accord (GNA) repel the offensive of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) last year, UN-led peace initiatives have taken the lead in partly resolving Libya’s domestic crisis.
Likewise, in Syria, Russia’s backing for Assad has overridden Turkey and the UAE’s divisions, while Abu Dhabi also faces constraints in aiding Assad due to the US’ Caesar Act, which entails sanctions for those supporting the Syrian regime.
Though their respective ministers praised each other’s space programs, potential competition in this sphere could trigger a “space race.”
While there may be reticence to engage in overt competition, a more subtle geopolitical rivalry may unfold. For instance, though their respective ministers praised each other’s space programs, potential competition in this sphere could trigger a “space race.” The UAE launched its “Hope” Mars mission in February, and plans a moon landing by 2014, while ambitiously seeking to build a human colony on Mars by 2114.
Meanwhile, Turkey in February also announced its plans to reach the moon in 2023, with a soft landing in that year, while aiming for a hard landing in 2028. A Turkish source told Middle East Eye that Ankara planned to build the launching station in Somalia, and that the location was suitable considering that Turkey had developed strong ties with Mogadishu. This could trigger a contest for prestige and additional economic benefits from successful space ventures.
In the future, instead of supporting rival conflicting actors, both countries may prioritize gaining soft power in different regional contexts, particularly in Africa. Turkey has expanded its relations and support for various states including Ethiopia, Somalia’s central government, and Djibouti. This could help it outperform the UAE, which still wants to secure its own stake in the continent.
In the end, a decrease in public antagonism may spell more positive circumstances for the region’s people. Though, it appears that entrenched Emirati-Turkish tensions will not truly disappear soon.