Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi February 14 for a state visit that would have been hard to imagine for most of the past decade. Turkey and the UAE were at odds in a range of regional conflicts, notably in Libya, and in a protracted ideational and ideological struggle, along with Qatar, over the political legitimacy of Islamism and the role and future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. However, Emirati-Turkish rapprochement has been one of the more striking, and apparently substantial and sustainable, elements of the new era of de-escalation among Middle Eastern regional actors. Erdogan’s visit, along with significant UAE investment and support for the Turkish economy, solidifies that trend and intensifies speculation that the Turkish president’s next stop could be Riyadh.
A Decade of Tension Between “Bully” and “Upstart”
The forces driving de-escalation, negotiations, and even rapprochement between major Middle Eastern players are all strikingly evident in the fraught UAE-Turkey relationship. After a decade of confrontation and conflict following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, most Middle Eastern powers that sought to take advantage of the instability found themselves overextended.
Despite their different sizes and capabilities, Turkey and the UAE are among the key powers that sought to project their influence in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Along with Qatar, Turkey was the main power supporting Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parties that sought, and indeed expected, to inherit power from former dictatorships in the republics rocked by rebellions. As the past decade progressed, some countries, notably the UAE and Egypt, were alarmed at the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni Islamist groups organizing as a regional bloc coordinated by Ankara and backed by Qatari financial and media support. For its part, Turkey accused the UAE of providing financial support to some of the organizers of a failed 2016 military coup against Erdogan’s Islamist government. The two countries, in short, perceived each other as adopting fundamentally hostile stances, with Turkey cast as a dangerous bully and the UAE as an arrogant upstart.
While the initial concern was a wave of takeovers by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties in post-dictatorship Arab republics, after the 2013 overthrow of the government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, it became clear that this was not unfolding. Instead, concerns shifted to prospects for the development of a Sunni Islamist regional network more directly under the guidance of Turkey and Qatar. These, arguably more fanciful, anxieties helped drive first the Gulf Arab diplomatic crisis with Qatar in 2013 and then the 4-year boycott of Doha by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt that began in June 2017. The fear was that Turkey and Qatar were seeking to build a Sunni Islamist counterpart to Iran’s regional network of Shia militias that have hollowed out many key Arab states and serve as the primary means through which Iran projects its own hegemony in neighboring countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
From the Turkish and Qatari perspective, however, they were merely supporting revolution, democracy, and legitimate and popular parties that had every right to form governments if they could. And since Turkey never succeeded in creating an Iranian-style, vertically integrated Sunni Islamist network, and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parties in different countries have hemorrhaged political support since 2011, such Emirati fears may have been unfounded. Yet so long as the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Arab world remained politically potent, and Turkey and Qatar were perceived by the UAE as its primary benefactors, the rapprochements unfolding between Abu Dhabi and both Ankara and Doha would have been difficult to achieve.
Stalemate in Libya Opens the Door
One of the most crucial developments allowing for the rapprochements was the stalemate in Libya. The UAE and Egypt strongly supported the eastern, Tobruk-based House of Representatives championed by General Khalifa Hifter. Turkey and Qatar were key supporters of the de facto, United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord based in the west in Tripoli, in which a variety of Islamist groups and militias are extremely powerful. The outside powers were therefore heavily invested in the “second” Libyan civil war beginning in 2017, in which the two governments attempted, in effect and in succession, to overrun each other. Both sides managed to retain control of their territories but could not displace the other.
Beyond the ideological Islamist affiliation, Turkey was determined to ensure the survival of the Tripoli-based regime because of its control of the port city of Misrata, where Turkey has historical influence and there is a sizeable Turkish population. That control is crucial to Ankara’s claims to an exclusive economic zone for liquid natural gas development and exportation in the eastern Mediterranean. Those highly contentious Turkish claims are based on an imaginary line drawn between the northern Turkish coast and Misrata and pursuant to an agreement between Turkey and the Government of National Accord. For the Turkish economic zone claims to remain plausible, that Libyan government must continue to control the port city.
This imperative led to a major Turkish military intervention in Libya in January 2020, involving hundreds of Turkish troops and almost 20,000 Syrian mercenaries. The UAE, too, was directly involved in the 2017 Libyan war (as well as the “first” Libyan civil war that overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, in 2011), although on a much smaller scale, including with deadly drone strikes and other airpower. Yet intervention at any scale by outside forces was not able to prevent the emergence of a stalemate in Libya in which both the eastern and western Libyan regimes proved incapable of unseating the other. The result has been an unsteady equilibrium and a faltering political process to pursue reconciliation in a deeply divided country.
The Libya stalemate helped lay the groundwork for the UAE reconciliation with Turkey and Qatar, because there was nothing more for outside powers to gain on the Libyan battlefield. Indeed, the Libyan engagement suggests that both the UAE and Turkey had overreached, at least somewhat, in regional conflicts. Virtually all Middle Eastern conflicts that outside powers had used to try to gain advantage after the decade of confrontation ended up stalemated (as in Libya), effectively resolved by a victory (as in Syria), or somehow having passed the point of diminishing returns for such regional actors. Ongoing fighting in Yemen and Houthi missile attacks against the UAE demonstrate that conflict still has an appeal for local forces that feel they can still make gains on the battlefield. And local wars can still disrupt the atmosphere of de-escalation for outside powers that are generally seeking to pull back. This creeping inertia and conflict fatigue prompted a turn away from confrontation and toward diplomatic, political, and commercial maneuver. Regional actors are seeking to rebuild their economic and military strength and preserve those gains that are essential or cost-effective while jettisoning unduly burdensome commitments in other countries.
The Collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood Project
Even more important, during the Qatar boycott – although not due to it – the political viability of the Muslim Brotherhood in most of the Arab world disintegrated. The movement had been dealt a grievous blow with the 2013 coup in Egypt, and it never fully recovered. But this 100-year-old political project effectively collapsed over the past three years. Its adherents in Hamas continue to rule Gaza, which is probably more of a burden than a prize. Other Sunni Islamists remain influential in western Libya and parts of Yemen, although even in those two places they are seemingly in decline.
But the apparently open-ended constitutional suspension in Tunisia that began September 22, 2021, and which was primarily aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood-offshoot party Ennahda, had all the hallmarks of a coup de grace as well as a coup d’etat. There is no reason to assume that Sunni Islamism could not enjoy a resurgence in the future, but for now, not only are most of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups in the region no longer viable contenders for national or even local power, the rhetorical and ideological appeal of the movement appears badly tarnished by a decade of consistent failure and widespread discreditation.
Turkey and Qatar have therefore been left with little to work with in terms of a powerful regional network of ideologically affiliated groups, although the two countries, especially in tandem, remain an exceptionally formidable pair even without such a potential regional bloc. The UAE, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, no longer face the prospect of a potent regional Islamist movement that threatens to gain and hold power in multiple Arab republics and, ultimately, potentially threaten regime legitimacy and stability in Gulf monarchies as well.
Purely at the ideational and ideological level, the UAE appears to have prevailed, at least at this juncture. However, Turkey remains arguably the most powerful regional actor by most standards, especially insofar as it emphasizes its Middle Eastern role. And Qatar successfully defended its sovereignty and independence by surviving the boycott without significantly altering its policies. Moreover, the apparent setback may be less damaging than it appears. Turkey has no need for such a network of subordinate regional groups to emerge as a central Middle Eastern player. And Qatar may find itself liberated from a nonviable, and even self-defeating, foreign policy framework it acquired over a decade ago during a bout of what, in hindsight, looks like irrational exuberance.
Can This Rapprochement Be Institutionalized?
Under such circumstances, not only did a reconciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council make sense, so did a rapprochement between the UAE (and, separately, Egypt) and Turkey, just as the Erdogan state visit to Abu Dhabi signals. For all its undoubted regional might, Turkey is undergoing a period of significant economic stress, which has provided the opportunity for the parties to try to build an institutional and, eventually, infrastructural framework for this rapprochement. On January 19, a nearly $5 billion currency swap agreement helped reinforce the struggling Turkish lira, and the UAE is reportedly planning a $10 billion investment fund for Turkey. Abu Dhabi has vowed to double or even triple trade volumes with Turkey in the near future, seeing Ankara as a key conduit to new markets, especially in Africa. Many more initiatives of this kind are likely to develop beyond the 13 reportedly agreed to during the state visit.
With the main sources of tension on foreign battlefields effectively played out, and the ideological and ideational struggle over Islamism similarly resolved, at least for the time being, the main grounds for mutual suspicion no longer pose serious barriers to cooperation. Since the UAE and Turkey are among the overextended regional powers pursuing retrenchment and consolidation, seeking avenues of mutual benefit is logical and, it appears, not particularly difficult. Ankara gets to access important financial support at a time of need and a chance to pull back from some of its seemingly endless tensions and quarrels with neighbors. And Abu Dhabi can access important new investments and markets at advantageous prices while, perhaps, attempting to use investment and infrastructure to provide Turkey with positive incentives to moderate any possible future regional assertion.
Since the underlying tensions between them arose primarily from mutual suspicions and ideological competition, much of which have been rendered moot, there is no reason the UAE-Turkey reconciliation shouldn’t be long lasting and mutually rewarding. Finally, both countries are traditional U.S. partners, and as Washington continues what is widely perceived to be a slow disengagement from long-standing regional commitments, its friends have numerous incentives to emphasize strategic diversification and accumulate additional partners and options. Both the UAE and Turkey will certainly be better off by working together instead of remaining on the collision course of the past decade.