While not short on ambition in its energy diversification policy, the UAE faces a particular set of challenges along the pathway to carbon neutrality.
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Over recent months there have been critical developments between Turkey and Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, suggesting an easing of tensions in relations that had been strained for almost a decade. Ankara has hosted high-level visits by Gulf Arab officials, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is planning to visit Saudi Arabia and the UAE in February. In a further sign of warming relations, the central banks of Turkey and the UAE agreed on a $5 billion currency swap deal, which Turkey hopes will help ease its financial crisis. The prospect of a Turkish rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is promising. But a comprehensive reconciliation doesn’t yet appear in sight, as economic cooperation dominates discussion, and a number of key political issues remain unresolved.
The Reconciliation Steps
The resolution of the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis at the summit in Al Ula in January 2021 after a nearly 4-year boycott of Qatar initially reduced Turkey’s tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Right after the summit, Anwar Gargash, then the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said the UAE had no reason to be at odds with Turkey, but he also urged Ankara to recalibrate its relations with the Arab world by curtailing its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. As soon as Turkey respects mutual sovereignty, Gargash said, the UAE will prioritize reconciliation.
Even though Abu Dhabi and Ankara have intervened on opposing sides in the war in Libya and have disagreed on issues ranging from Syria to the eastern Mediterranean, which includes Egypt, the dialogue process at least was initiated. High-level visits from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s close circle and the UAE’s political elite were important signs of change. Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security advisor and Mohammed bin Zayed’s brother, visited Ankara in August 2021 to meet with Erdogan, and Mohammed bin Zayed and Erdogan spoke on the telephone. And in November 2021, Mohammed bin Zayed met with Erdogan in Ankara, his first visit to Turkey since 2012. The two sides announced a $10 billion series of investment accords.
Since October 2020, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been communicating to ease tensions that have been heightened, particularly since the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. However, progress in the consolidation of bilateral ties has not been as rapid with Saudi Arabia as with the UAE. In May 2021, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Saudi Arabia to improve relations. This was followed by a phone call between Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Erdogan. Cavusolgu tweeted May 11 that Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed “to work on positive issues on our common agenda and to hold regular consultations,” which would add to “stability, peace and prosperity in the region.” In late November, Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, a member of the close circle of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, met with Turkey’s vice president in Ankara, where they discussed trade and bilateral relations.
A Quick Review of Gulf-Turkey Ties
In the past two decades, Turkey and the GCC countries have signed a series of economic and political agreements. In 2008, Turkey’s foreign minister joined his GCC counterparts in signing a Strategic Dialogue Mechanism. Turkey-GCC ties were thus initially characterized by multifaceted agreements at a regional level. However, each Gulf state’s expectations for a strategic partnership with Turkey, and Turkey’s goals for relations with each of the six GCC states, have differed. Furthermore, although there were ambitions for GCC-Turkey cooperation, Turkey did not have a unified and comprehensive cooperation plan to fit the interests of each of the GCC states, and the GCC states were not able to agree on a common strategy for building ties with Turkey.
A Way Forward on Trade
Since the Arab Spring uprisings, conflicts over Turkey’s foreign policy and the objectives of each Gulf state have come to the fore. As Turkey and key Gulf states now look to end their respective political standoffs and seek avenues for cooperation, they are looking to restore and deepen economic ties. Because Turkey’s total trade volume with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is currently relatively low, there is significant potential for growth (and particularly an opportunity to strengthen military sales). The UAE’s total trade volume was approximately $481 billion in 2018 and Turkey’s share was almost $7 billion. For Saudi Arabia, the trade volume was $405 billion, while Turkey’s share was only $5 billion. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are among the world’s top weapons purchasers, mostly from Western countries. But the Gulf states have made efforts to diversify their military suppliers, including turning to China and South Korea. With improved relations, there may be greater opportunity for Turkey in the Gulf market in arms trade.
A Potential Bulwark Countering Iran’s Regional Ambitions
There is also a view in key Gulf capitals that Turkey has the potential to serve as a balancing force with Iran. As an important, predominantly Sunni, regional power, Turkey is viewed, particularly by Saudi Arabia, as a “valuable bulwark against Iran.” On the other hand, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated on his last visit to Iran in November 2021 that Turkey supports the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, which would not only strengthen economic ties between Turkey and Iran but also enhance regional security. While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have their own calculations regarding the JCPOA and current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Turkey’s position on these issues does not undermine their calculations about a balancing role it is capable of playing with Iran.
The Political Disconnect
Despite the small steps already taken toward improving ties between Turkey and the UAE and Saudi Arabia, there remain numerous political issues that have not been discussed between the parties, at least publicly. Turkey’s disputes with the UAE over Libya, Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean, have not been resolved. There are also still tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder. Moreover, Erdogan was quite harsh in his remarks in August 2020 regarding the Abraham Accords, suggesting Turkey might suspend diplomatic ties with Abu Dhabi or withdraw the Turkish ambassador from the UAE, although given Turkey’s own strong economic relations with Israel, it remains unclear how much further Ankara would choose to press this issue.
Qatar’s view of Turkey’s policy shift toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia is also important for two reasons. Qatar has added strategic depth to Turkey’s foreign policy calculations due to its Gulf location and its unique political and economic role. During a December 2021 joint press conference of Qatar’s and Turkey’s foreign ministers, Cavusoglu stated that Qatar contributed to improving relations between Turkey and the rest of the Gulf region. Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani expressed support for Turkey’s rapprochement with Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, encouraging “permanent fraternal relations between all brotherly and friendly countries of the State of Qatar.” Qatar is also collaborating with Turkey in building foreign partnerships. Turkey and Qatar, for example, are working together with the interim Afghan government to reach an agreement over the operation of Kabul Airport. However, the UAE has also announced its intent to take part in airport management in Afghanistan, a relatively benign indicator – at this point – of the possibility that Turkey’s nascent cooperation with the UAE and Saudi Arabia could eventually put some stress on the close relationship it has developed with Qatar.
A Modus Vivendi
After high-level Saudi and Emirati visits to Ankara, Erdogan is now planning his Gulf tour, in what will be his first trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE after nearly 10 years of tensions. This thaw in relations between Ankara and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh seems to be the beginning of a positive process for these former regional adversaries toward deepening relations. However, the potential for true reconciliation depends on their ability to contain disagreements on remnants of the regional political and ideological issues that divided them in the past and give the economic progress time to strengthen these key regional relationships. An era of easing political tensions has begun, but, if this opening is not tended properly, new chapters of rivalry could emerge, even as unresolved political conflicts fester.
is a PhD candidate at a joint degree program between the Qatar University Gulf Studies Center and Durham University School of Government and International Affairs.
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