The recent thaw in relations seems to be a positive step for these former regional adversaries toward deepening ties, but unresolved political conflicts may continue to fester.
After years of tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, there has been a clear improvement in relations between the two countries since the beginning of the year, with a dramatic uptick in movement on both sides toward restoring ties in recent weeks. In January, Anwar Gargash, then the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said, “What we want to tell Turkey is, we want to normalize our relations within the framework of mutual respect for sovereignty.” In March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “There is no reason for Turkey not to mend ties with Saudi Arabia; if they take positive step, we will do so as well, same goes for UAE.” A month later, the UAE’s foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, spoke with his Turkish counterpart in reportedly the first such call in half a decade. On August 18, Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security advisor, met in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On August 31, Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan spoke in a rare phone call. Gargash, who is now a presidential diplomatic advisor, described the call as “very positive and friendly.”
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has ruled the country for nearly two decades. During its first several years in power, there were strong ties between the Gulf Arab countries and Turkey, and particularly solid UAE-Turkey relations, rooted in strong mutual interests.
Turkey and the Gulf Arab states shared concerns regarding Iran, as well as Tehran’s influence in Iraq. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ousted the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Gulf states became wary of Iran’s regional influence. The United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq opened the space for Tehran to boost its influence in the region, exacerbating the Gulf Arab states’ concerns. At the time, many Gulf states viewed Turkey as well positioned to serve as a balance against regional instability. Ankara, in turn, wanted to bolster its relations with the Gulf Arab states, which viewed it as a potential bulwark against Iran.
Security and regional politics were not the only factors driving closer Turkey-Gulf ties. Each side saw significant advantages in strengthened economic cooperation. Between 2001 and 2008, for instance, there was increased bilateral trade between the two countries. In 2008, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council signed a memorandum of understanding establishing Turkey as the first non-GCC state to become an official strategic partner of the Gulf states. This also meant a boost for Ankara-Abu Dhabi ties.
The Turning Point
The Arab Spring protests, however, marked a change in the status of the Turkey-Gulf relationship. Turkey’s ties with the UAE were particularly sorely tested. Ankara was supportive of the protests, which offered Turkey a chance to enhance its regional role, through its ties with Islamist-aligned parties that gained control after the ouster of long-time rulers, or exercise a pivotal role in several countries in turmoil. In turn, the UAE and other Gulf countries adopted a more cautious stance, concerned over the growing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties as well as over regime stability. Since then, Turkey and the UAE have taken different approaches toward regional conflicts and political alliances.
The geopolitical conflict lines have reappeared recently in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring protests brought about the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, and the Islamist-affiliated Ennahda Party came to power. Though Ennahda’s political influence and control over the government began ebbing gradually after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, that eclipse in its control over the government accelerated after President Kais Saied fired the prime minister and shut down the Parliament in late July. Ennahda, facing criticism from the streets, has nonetheless maintained a great deal of support. While Ankara has long been a strong regional ally of Ennahda, the UAE has repeatedly attempted to influence the country away from Turkey.
The UAE and Turkey have been competing with each other in Syria as well. While the civil war enabled Turkey to increase its influence in the region, the UAE tried to deter Ankara in the country in at least two ways: by backing Kurdish armed groups that stood up to Ankara’s influence in the country’s northeast and by shifting its stance toward the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. While the UAE was among the countries that severed ties with the Syrian government at the beginning of the civil war, it has since moved to restore ties. In late 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus. Since then, there have been increased signs of a rapprochement between the UAE and the Syrian government, including a phone call between Assad and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, restoration of air links, and public remarks by the UAE’s charge d’affaires in 2019 expressing support for Assad’s “wise leadership.” The UAE’s desire to curb Turkish influence in Syria seems to be one important factor motivating the UAE’s opening to the Assad government.
The boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt also moved the UAE away from Turkey, as Ankara sided with Doha. Turkey’s decision to support Qatar during the Gulf crisis was unsurprising, since both countries have adopted a similar approach for the region.
Driving Factors for De-escalation
Turkey-Gulf ties have been periodically recalibrated by regional circumstances, and recent signs indicate that the relationship is quickly becoming closer once again. David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who also served as a U.S. ambassador to the UAE, said in an email interview, “Rapprochement between Turkey and the UAE makes strategic sense for both governments. They both share some neighbors – Iran, Syria, Afghanistan – that are huge factors for regional instability. The difference in their political systems is manageable, provided they exercise cool-headed diplomacy. There is also potential for mutually beneficial trade.”
Indeed, both Ankara and Abu Dhabi appear to be interested in boosting their economic relations. This was reportedly one of the topics that the two sides discussed during Tahnoun’s visit to Turkey. Their regional dispute has had a negative effect on their economies. For instance, Turkey’s exports with the UAE dropped from $9.2 billion in 2017 to $2.1 billion in 2018. In recent years, Turkey’s economy has been struggling, especially due to implications from the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the Turkish economy suffered a “historic contraction in second quarter.” Moreover, when Erdogan met the Libyan interim prime minister in Istanbul in August, he reportedly asked Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh to repay nearly $4 billion in debt. In fact, it is possible Turkey’s increased support for the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord since General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army launched its offensive in Tripoli in 2019 has been partially motivated by Ankara’s interest in getting back some of these funds.
The UAE and Turkey have been taking meaningful steps toward easing tensions since the election of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The United States has been concerned over the UAE-Turkey regional contest. “The U.S. has occasionally difficult but important relations with both countries,” Mack noted. He said that the rivalry has “not served U.S. interests,” continuing that “Washington wants to see them put their feud in the past.”
Moreover, as there is increasing perceptions of a U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East, regional states have been moving toward de-escalation due to increasing doubts over the extent to which the United States will support them in the face of regional threats. For example, U.S. partners were stunned by the lack of any U.S. military response to the September 2019 drone attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The response from the administration of former President Donald J. Trump suggested that Washington will not always stick to the Carter Doctrine, which asserted U.S. protection of Gulf-based oil fields. Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan likely elevated U.S. regional partners’ concerns. Feeling less of a security blanket, Gulf states seemingly assume their interests lie in decreasing tensions with a powerful neighbor – and potential ally – like Turkey.
The UAE and Turkey’s rapprochement is seemingly part of a larger effort to mend fences throughout the region, hence the Saudi-Iranian talks, which started in April. Turkey has been working to improve ties with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saudi support for this effort in recent months no doubt also factors into UAE calculations. For the UAE, on August 26 Tahnoun visited Qatar, where he met Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. As UAE-Qatar relations had deteriorated with the Gulf crisis, Tahnoun’s visit can be seen in the context of this interest of reducing tensions in the region.
Abu Dhabi is reportedly interested in helping to revive Ankara’s relationship with the Syrian government. This could be facilitated with improved UAE-Turkey relations. “I think it is inevitable that relations between the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad and Turkey will improve. There is too much economic benefit to be had if both governments bury the hatchet in the near future,” argued David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in Texas and the author of “Syria: A Modern History,” in an email interview. The Gulf states that are interested in strengthening ties with Assad appear to be awaiting a green light from Washington – which is currently reviewing its policy on the country – before taking the next step. It remains to be seen the extent to which U.S. objections to Gulf rapprochement with Syria will be an obstacle for Abu Dhabi to facilitate stronger Turkey-Syria ties.
Prospects for Restored Ties
This is not the first time in the past decade that the UAE and Turkey have made attempts to ease tensions. In 2016, Emirati and Turkish officials exchanged visits and the UAE appointed an ambassador to Turkey. However, the rapprochement withered after Turkey accused the UAE of having provided support for the coup attempt against Erdogan that same year.
While the recent developments are positive, there are various factors, including the two countries’ expectations for each other, that will determine the course of the relationship. Certainly, a meeting between Erdogan and Mohammed bin Zayed would have a positive impact on strengthening the relationship between the two countries and set relations on a steadier course.
Today, the dynamics have changed from what they were five years ago. Economically, the oil-rich Gulf states were not fully immune from the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the UAE’s economy shrank by an estimated 6.1%. Turkey’s economy, in turn, was already struggling prior to the pandemic. Meanwhile, a perceived U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East seemingly leaves the regional states looking for alternative options, and diplomacy seems to have emerged as one. Thus, the current rapprochement seemingly has greater staying power than the outreach in 2016. This does not mean, however, that the two countries will become “close allies” overnight. Instead, the shared interests and concerns are likely to drive the course of the relationship.
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