The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.
For the first time since 2013, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a 2-day official visit to the United Arab Emirates on February 14. A lavish reception was waiting for him and his delegation upon their arrival, with a cavalry procession, a 21-gun salute, and an aerial show. Additionally, the Burj Khalifa was lit up in the colors of the Turkish flag. Erdogan’s visit to the UAE attracted a lot of attention as another step in the normalization process initiated by Abu Dhabi as early as January 2021.
The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings strained relations between Turkey and the UAE over the last decade. Abu Dhabi and Ankara adopted contrasting foreign policies that put them on a collision course. The conflicting positions toward several regional issues and developments received considerable attention from observers and experts. Consequently, other areas of possible convergence were ignored, and regional competition between different axes exacerbated the differences.
Erdogan’s visit to Abu Dhabi comes amid a rare period of regional de-escalation following the defeat of former President Donald J. Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the January 2021 reconciliation agreement signed at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al Ula. It reciprocates visits to Ankara by UAE National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan in August 2021 followed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the UAE, in November 2021.
These visits laid the foundation for greater cooperation in the fields of finance, energy, petrochemicals, technology, transportation, infrastructure, health care, and agriculture, among others. Recently, Emirati officials announced plans to invest in Turkey: Abu Dhabi set up a $10 billion fund to target strategic investments in Ankara, and the UAE’s central bank agreed on a nearly $5 billion currency swap agreement with Turkey’s central bank.
While in Abu Dhabi, the Turkish officials signed 13 bilateral agreements with their Emirati counterparts, thus signaling the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries. Two agreements, in particular, deserve more attention. First, Abu Dhabi expressed readiness to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Ankara – one of Turkey’s long-standing strategic goals with the GCC countries. Second, Turkey and the UAE signed a letter of intent to hold defense industry cooperation meetings.
Addressing Erdogan and the accompanying delegation, Mohammed bin Zayed assured that his country is “keen to strengthen its emerging partnership with Turkey amid the rising regional challenges and is looking forward to jointly tackle these challenges through dialogue, understanding, and consultation.” Similarly, Erdogan stressed, “Cooperation between Turkey and the UAE is the key to peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.” To further emphasize his point, Erdogan said, “The security, stability, and prosperity of Turkey is interlinked with the Gulf.” This statement echoes his previous stance penned in an article in Khaleej Times, “We do not separate the security and stability of the United Arab Emirates and our other brothers in the Gulf region from the security and stability of our own country.”
The Iranian Threat
The security dimension of the agreements between Turkey and the UAE shows an acknowledgment of the emerging shared threat perception stemming from the proliferation of pro-Iranian Shia armed militias in the region as well as concerns over the possible outcomes of a nuclear deal between Tehran and the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In the last few weeks, the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen have conducted a series of missile and drone attacks against the UAE. On January 17, a Houthi attack triggered a fuel tank blast at a storage facility in Abu Dhabi that killed two Indians and a Pakistani working for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The Houthis have also targeted Al Dhafra Air Base as well as critical areas in Dubai, on top of launching hundreds of missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia since 2015.
Less than two weeks before Erdogan’s visit to the UAE, a little-known Iraqi group, the True Promise Brigades, launched four drones targeting vital facilities in Abu Dhabi. The same group claimed a January 2021 attack against Saudi Arabia.
In parallel with these new security threats to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qais Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-allied Shia militia group in Iraq, issued a statement vigorously threatening Turkey. He vowed that his group and fellow militias would teach the Turks harsh lessons. The statement came against the backdrop of Turkey’s military campaign in northern Iraq versus the military posts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a designated terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, among others. Iran and its allied Shia militias have backed the PKK against Turkey in the regional rivalry between Ankara and Tehran, especially in Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, and the Gulf.
In 2018, pro-Iranian Shia militias aided the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with weapons, vehicles, and fighters during Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Syria. In 2020, Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria stepped up their efforts to target Turkey, albeit directly this time. Turkey’s response, however, was swift and lethal. Turkey launched a pinpoint TB2 drone strike against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-allied Shia militias backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the battle over Idlib reportedly killing more than 50 members of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade, Fatemiyoun Division, Hezbollah, and even the IRGC.
Following these developments, in November 2020, Khazali claimed that Turkey’s presence in Iraq was more dangerous than that of the United States and vowed to personally take up weapons against Ankara. In February 2021, Iranian Al-Alam TV broadcast scenes of the group Ashab al-Kahf using Iranian-made missiles to target Turkish sites in northern Iraq. A possible nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington could end up boosting Iran’s regional influence and increasing the destabilizing activities of its regional proxies, exacerbating security threats in the region. If such threats persist, it could prompt greater cooperation between the UAE and Turkey and ultimately serve as a catalyst to cementing the Turkey-UAE partnership.
Turkey as a Security Provider in the Gulf
With concerns of heightened insecurity amid a perceived U.S. withdrawal from the region, Turkey has been increasingly promoting itself as a credible and reliable ally capable of being a security provider in a highly volatile region.
U.S. partners and allies in the region have been increasingly feeling abandoned following the pivot to Asia. With Russia invading Ukraine, the sense of insecurity will increase in the Middle East. Although it is still early to foresee the implications, this development might prompt intra-regional security partnerships in the region, including one between the UAE and Turkey.
In 2014, Turkey and Qatar formed an alliance and Ankara established a military base in the gas-rich country, deploying troops to the Gulf region for the first time in almost a hundred years. According to one Turkish official, the Iranians were not happy with this; however, their animosity with the Saudis forced them to swallow the Turkish move at the time. In June 2017, Erdogan revealed that Turkey had offered to build a Turkish base in Saudi Arabia. “I made the offer to King Salman … and said that if it’s appropriate, we could also establish a base in Saudi Arabia.”
While a Turkish military base in the UAE might not come anytime soon, the countries are expanding defense cooperation. The UAE was already the fourth largest importer of defense equipment from Turkey in 2021, valued at around $161.5 million, right after Qatar. Abu Dhabi has been looking to purchase more military equipment from Ankara and invest in Turkey’s rising defense sector.
The sector’s performance has been a success story. Military equipment like the TB2 drone has gained a global reputation following its decisive role in complex geopolitical theaters like Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Ismail Demir, head of the Presidency of Defense Industries, “The Turkish defense industry has exported 228 products to 170 countries” in the past 10 years. “While only 62 defense projects were carried out nearly 20 years ago, today this number has exceeded 750. About half of these projects have been launched in the last 5 years,” he added.
In this sense, the letter of intent to hold defense industry cooperation meetings will be critical in future talks between Turkey and the UAE. The agreement will set up regular meetings between the officials and technical teams of Ankara and Abu Dhabi to ensure the maturation of the cooperation areas and follow up on those meetings’ outcomes. However, the extent to which the two parties will be willing to upgrade their emerging relationship to a defense or security partnership remains to be seen.
is an assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences.
This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2022, “Expanding Regional Partnerships for Security and Prosperity,” held on November 17, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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