The UAE Struggle for Turkish Containment: Is it Time for a New Approach?
Since the United Arab Emirates normalized diplomatic relations with Israel on August 13, tensions between the UAE and Turkey have soared to unprecedented heights. Immediately after the normalization deal was announced, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to suspend diplomatic relations with UAE, which follows Turkish intelligence officials’ arrest of an alleged Emirati spy on October 16. The UAE responded to these provocations by accusing Turkey of destabilizing the Gulf region through its base in Qatar, later signing a mutual defense pact with Greece on November 23 and threatening to sanction Algeria for its cooperation with Turkey.
Attempts to Fortify the “Arab Axis”
Although the UAE has continued to escalate tensions with Turkey, the sustainability of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to contain Turkish influence in the Middle East remains uncertain. The core pillars of the UAE’s anti-Turkey strategy, which were the construction of a broad anti-Turkish consensus in the Arab world and a successful military intervention in Libya, have unraveled over the past year. While the inauguration of former Vice President Joe Biden might give the UAE’s anti-Turkish agenda a friendly ear in Washington, Abu Dhabi’s recent setbacks could force it to recalibrate its strategy towards Turkey in the coming months.
Since Turkey dispatched troops to Qatar in the summer of 2017, the UAE has attempted to forge a broad regional coalition against Ankara. The main rhetorical drivers of the UAE’s coalition-building efforts are Arab nationalism and counterterrorism. In December 2017, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs stated that “the Arab world would not be led by Turkey” and urged Arab countries to coalesce around the “Arab axis” of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The UAE used similar Arab solidarity narratives to rally its partners against Turkey’s January 2018 Operation Olive Branch campaign in Afrin, Syria. Via its regional allies, such as Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) and Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, the UAE contended that Turkey supported Islamic extremist movements throughout the region.
The UAE’s construction of an Arab coalition against Turkey gained serious traction following Ankara’s October 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive in northern Syria. During that offensive, Anwar Gargash described Syria as a “brotherly Arab country” and led calls for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Kurdish-majority regions of northern Syria. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait mirrored the UAE’s rhetoric, in spite of their refusal to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Libya was the only objector to an Arab League resolution condemning Turkey’s conduct. The UAE regarded Saudi Arabia’s growing alarmism about the Turkish threat and ad hoc initiatives to contain Turkey, such as the Egypt-Iraq-Jordan triumvirate, as proof of the growing traction of its efforts to combat Ankara.
In recent months, the UAE’s efforts to forge an Arab consensus against Erdogan’s ambitions have unraveled. Despite Iraq’s periodic frustrations with Turkish cross-border strikes on the PKK, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has courted Turkey as a regional partner. In an even greater blow to the UAE’s anti-Turkey agenda, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman struck a conciliatory tone with Erdogan after their November 20 discussion. This shift, which occurred weeks after Saudi Arabia informally boycotted Turkish goods, can be explained by Riyadh’s efforts to rebrand its foreign policy to the incoming Biden administration.
UAE’s Anti-Turkey Strategy on Brink of Collapse
The fortunes of the UAE’s Libyan ally Khalifa Haftar have also unraveled, and Turkey is the principal beneficiary of the LNA’s setbacks. As Haftar struggles to maintain footholds in Sirte and al-Jufra, the UAE’s partners in Libya have pivoted towards balancing strategies. France, Russia, and Egypt regularly engage with pro-Turkish Government of National Accord (GNA) officials, such as Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, as they seek to preserve their leverage in Libya. While Anwar Gargash’s oblique criticism of Haftar’s unilateralism in June suggests that the UAE is frustrated with the LNA chieftain, Abu Dhabi’s framing of the Libyan conflict as a proxy war with Turkey limits its ability to adapt to shifting power balances on the ground.
The seemingly collapsing foundations of the UAE’s anti-Turkey strategy suggests that Abu Dhabi needs to rethink its approach to containing Erdogan’s ambitions. The UAE’s reassessment of its Turkey strategy could result in two foreign policy trajectories. The first trajectory is a tactical de-escalation of tensions between the UAE and Turkey, which is achieved through incremental dialogue and reducing sources of tension. This approach mirrors the UAE’s efforts to reduce tensions with Iran from May 2019 to August 2020 but is unlikely to succeed. Unlike Iran, which saw engagement with the UAE as a mean of steering the United States away from war and eroding Saudi Arabia’s hegemony within the GCC, Turkey has few incentives to engage with the UAE. As Turkish state media outlets routinely accuse the UAE of trying to destabilize Turkey through espionage or collusion with France, a rapprochement with Abu Dhabi would be extremely unpopular.
The second more plausible trajectory is a recalibration of the UAE’s anti-Turkey strategy. As Caesar Act sanctions bar the UAE from investing in Syria’s reconstruction and the UAE’s campaign in Libya faces diminishing returns, Abu Dhabi can no longer carry out an expansive containment policy against Turkey in the Middle East. Due to these limitations, the UAE could devote more resources towards containing Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. The UAE’s accession to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as an observer and joint air force drills with Greece in August underscore its rising importance as a stakeholder in the eastern Mediterranean. The UAE’s web of alliances in Sudan and Ethiopia combined with its rising influence in the Sahel allow it to compete directly with Turkey in Africa.
Moreover, the UAE could expand its use of soft power and diplomacy to contain Turkish influence. The UAE’s extensive provisions of testing kits, protective clothing, and food supplies throughout the Middle East and Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic rivalled Turkey’s similar initiatives. The UAE could also reverse its obstructionist policies in Libya, which included pressuring Haftar to withdraw from January’s peace negotiations in Moscow, and encourage the LNA chieftain to extract concessions at the bargaining table. The return of the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Abu Dhabi allows the UAE to expand its diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and counter Turkey’s growing collaboration with Hamas.
As this crisis of UAE-Turkey relations enters its fourth year, Abu Dhabi’s strategy to contain Turkish influence in the Middle East is on the brink of collapse. Since Emirati officials continue to frame Iran and Turkey as joint adversaries in the Middle East, they are unwilling to make concessions to or re-engage with Ankara. Instead, the UAE might pivot away from aggressively containing Turkish influence in the Middle East and towards a strategy that emphasizes extra-regional contestation and soft power. This strategic reassessment could help the UAE develop a more sustainable containment strategy towards Turkey in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.