The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) visited Ankara on November 24. MbZ’s Turkish hosts rolled out a turquoise carpet and held a cavalry procession for his reception.
This was the Emirati leader’s first visit to Turkey in nearly a decade. While there, he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and hours later Abu Dhabi announced an investment fund of USD 10 billion that will go to various sectors of Turkey’s economy, including energy and trade. As Turkey reels from its currency crisis, such economic support from the UAE could help buoy the Turkish economy.
Throughout the past ten years, a series of events as well as messy conflicts and disputes have exacerbated friction between Turkey and the UAE.
Throughout the past ten years, a series of events as well as messy conflicts and disputes have exacerbated friction between Turkey and the UAE. Specifically, the Egyptian coup of July 2013, the eruption of Libya’s civil war in May 2014, the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, and the blockade of Qatar in June 2017 all harmed ties between Ankara and Abu Dhabi. In light of all this, the Emirati state visit was significant.
Once news broke that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi had plans to visit Erdogan in Turkey, informed observers were not surprised because the trip followed nearly one year of developments foreshadowing a thaw in Emirati-Turkish relations.
A Thawing Relationship
In January, Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to President Sheikh Khalifa, expressed his country’s desire for a rapprochement with Ankara. Three months later, Abu Dhabi’s chief diplomat Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (AbZ) and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke by phone. In the month of August there was a phone call between MbZ and Erdogan and a high-profile visit from Emirati National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan (TbZ) to the Turkish president in Ankara. Additionally, six days before MbZ arrived in the Turkish capital, high-ranking Turkish and Emirati officials met in Italy.
What has driven Ankara and Abu Dhabi to find ways to ease their friction and pursue a more cooperative bilateral relationship?
The change of US leadership in January 2021 could have been one factor, as it caused more countries in the Middle East to begin talking to each other, rather than counting on Washington to back them up in their confrontations with regional rivals and foes. With President Joe Biden being perceived as less willing than his predecessor to turn a blind eye to militarism on the part of US allies, partners, and friends in the Middle East, regional powerhouses have had a greater incentive to test diplomatic waters in the post-Trump era.
Yet 2021 has been a year of reconciliation between numerous Middle Eastern powers, including Turkey and the UAE, for a variety of reasons. Some are unrelated to the US and its role in the region.
Turkey and the UAE began seeing the limits of what hawkish approaches to dealing with the other could do for either side.
Basically, both Turkey and the UAE began seeing the limits of what hawkish approaches to dealing with the other could do for either side. Additionally, the burdens of maintaining tough positions against each other became heavier. As did virtually all countries in the Middle East, both Turkey and the UAE suffered from the economic fallout of COVID-19, giving officials in Ankara and Abu Dhabi strong incentives to conduct less costly foreign policies.
“They were challenging each other, but after many years they both understood . . . the cost,” explained Dr. Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, in an interview with Inside Arabia.
Towards an Equilibrium in Libya
In Libya, Abu Dhabi had backed Khalifa Haftar’s failed 2019-2020 military campaign to capture Tripoli. That offensive was the pretext for the intensification of Turkey’s direct military intervention against Haftar’s Libyan National Army. As Turkey made itself a force to contend with in Libya, Abu Dhabi realized that pursuing more diplomatic approaches to the North African country was the UAE’s best option. The Emiratis continuing to push Haftar toward achieving his goals militarily amid the Turkish-backed counter-offensive would have only come at the expense of the eastern warlord and, by extension, Emirati interests too.
Likewise, Ankara realized that while its intervention helped save Libya’s capital city from pro-Haftar forces, the militias aligned with the Tripoli-based government were in no position to conquer eastern Libya. Within this context, both Turkey and the UAE realized the limits of what their intervention in Libya could achieve. This year both states have pragmatically lent their support to the UN-sponsored Libyan peace process.
The Syria Factor
With the UAE and Turkey’s relationship warming, it will be important to see how this rapprochement could impact the situation in Syria. “If Turkey opens a type of communications and dialogue . . . then you can easily talk about the problems in the region,” Dr. Aslan told Inside Arabia. Hence, some kind of “balance mechanism [can be established] by direct communication with [the Emiratis].”
The Turkish scholar was referring to the PKK-linked Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. In Turkey, there is a view that the UAE has been a sponsor of the YPG—itself a source of friction in bilateral relations in recent years. Therefore, the thinking is that Ankara could benefit from Abu Dhabi using its leverage over the YPG to try and influence the group to act differently vis-à-vis Turkey. If the UAE does have any influence over the PKK-affiliated organization, this could fit into a set of grander talks between Emirati and Turkish officials over the future of Syria, where Abu Dhabi seeks to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad’s international image.
The idea of Turkey agreeing to renormalize relations with Assad’s government in exchange for certain guarantees about the YPG disarming or integrating into a Syrian state at peace with Ankara cannot be dismissed as a hopeless fantasy. It is worth considering how a Turkey-UAE rapprochement could accelerate such a process that Russia and other actors would fully support.
It is worth considering how a Turkey-UAE rapprochement could accelerate such a process that Russia and other actors would fully support.
The future of Idlib will be another issue for the Turks and Emiratis to address. On April 8, 2020, the Middle East Eye published a report claiming that MBZ made “strenuous and persistent attempts to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to break a ceasefire with Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province.” Regardless of this claim’s veracity, Idlib, along with some other regional files, will present significant challenges for Ankara and Abu Dhabi to find a common understanding.
Changing Needs and Priorities
At present, states in the region have economic considerations at the forefront of their foreign policy decision-making. Pursuing greater trade, investment, and opportunities for achieving greater economic integration across the Middle East is a higher priority. Settling scores with geopolitical rivals and advancing ideological agendas are less important at this stage. Similarly, this dynamic has helped explain Abu Dhabi’s rapprochement with Doha. We also see this in other bilateral relationships such as Jordan-Syria, Saudi Arabia-Qatar, and Saudi Arabia-Turkey.
“The leaderships in Ankara and in Abu Dhabi likely both feel that years of confrontational approaches have produced little in the way of tangible gains for either side and that in an era of economic stress it behooves them to dial down the geopolitical uncertainties at least in areas they can control,” Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, told Inside Arabia.
“The UAE has also seen firsthand the limitations of its ability to project power far from its borders, in Libya and Yemen, while President Erdogan needs to focus more on domestic issues as the economy struggles and his political and potentially electoral appeal wanes,” Dr. Ulrichsen added. “Refocusing on areas of economic and commercial cooperation can offer the hope of win-wins for both sides, without necessarily having any spillover into relationships with other states such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia.”
In recent years, there has been an escalation in tension between Turkey and a host of state and non-state actors around it. The Turks have waged military operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and PKK-linked forces in Iraq and Syria, while also becoming a major player in Libya’s civil war during 2019-2020. In Ukraine, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucuses, the Turks have also been facing problems with rival states, chiefly Armenia, Cyprus, Greece, and Russia.
Turkey is now seeking “a sustainable level of engagement with [other countries] that facilitates the management of the overall problems in the close neighborhood,” according to Dr. Aslan. So Ankara is trying to find ways to “cool down, save energy, and be more focused on the most imminent risk of escalation,” he said. This factor is critical to understanding Ankara’s interests in forging a better relationship with the Emiratis.
Prospects for Further Warming of Ties
Fortunately, there are signs that both Ankara and Abu Dhabi want to de-escalate. In both capitals there is a desire for deeper dialogue that can help the Turks and Emiratis find some common ground and better manage, rather than intensify, the friction between them. That said, delicate political issues in the Middle East and North Africa—including the situations in Libya and Syria, plus the role of the Muslim Brotherhood—will not necessarily be easy for the Turks and Emiratis to reconcile. Their perspectives diverge significantly such that they will likely remain opposing stakeholders in many areas. The Ethiopian conflict, however, is one where Turkey and the UAE are on the same side.
There is a desire for deeper dialogue that can help the Turks and Emiratis find some common ground and better manage the friction between them.
Looking ahead it is a safe bet that economics, trade, and investment are the areas where cooperation is likely to pick up fastest. When it comes to delicate political issues in the Middle East, it may take longer for cooperation and a common understanding between the Turks and Emiratis to take shape. For that to happen, it will be important for them to build trust, which will not happen overnight considering the extent to which this bilateral relationship fractured in the post-Arab Spring period.
“Trust is an essential issue in international politics. You can easily destroy it. But it takes time to build it,” Dr. Aslan told Inside Arabia. “Currently, we are in the early phases of building trust [between Ankara and Abu Dhabi]. Both parties signed agreements. . . It’s a good thing. But if there [is] a type of contradiction that will just escalate into another confrontation—maybe not militarily, but politically—then we should be pessimistic.”
In early December, not long after MbZ’s Ankara visit, Çavuşoğlu went to Dubai for meetings with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the monarch of Dubai, and the UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister. The two discussed “strengthening cooperation between the UAE and Turkey and developing frameworks to collaborate on all areas of common interest.” Ankara’s chief diplomat also met with Turkish businessmen in the Gulf country. What will mark another important point in the thawing relations will be Erdogan’s planned trip to the UAE in February 2022.
To be sure, with the current leaderships in power, the UAE and Turkey will not agree on many issues where ideology is a critical factor. Qatar, much more so than the UAE, will continue to have far more synergy with Turkey when it comes to political questions in the rapidly changing Middle East, particularly with respect to questions concerning Islamist groups.
While highly doubtful that Abu Dhabi could soon replace Doha as Ankara’s closest friend in the GCC, a better relationship between the UAE and Turkey could enable Ankara to conduct a more balanced foreign policy in the region as a whole.