Mending bilateral ties will require much more engagement and dialogue between the two countries, both of which have governments that view the Middle East through extremely different ideological lenses.
Since before the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Turkey has had a tenuous relationship with a number of states within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Of the union’s six members, none has irritated Turkey more than the United Arab Emirates, which has charted an independent foreign policy that in many ways contradicts its own. Abu Dhabi and Ankara have been opposing stakeholders in many regional conflicts and disputes, with each government viewing the other as dangerous and responsible for fueling instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Bilateral affairs became especially tense in the aftermath of the failed July 15, 2016 coup plot in Turkey, which officials in Ankara have accused the Emiratis of being culpable in.
Despite years of friction building up in Emirati-Turkish relations, the UAE’s National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (TbZ), visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on August 18. The two discussed potential Emirati investments in Turkey’s economy, as well as regional issues.
This meeting was the “most significant event in UAE-Turkey relations in years,” as Dr. Cinzia Bianco, the Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained. TbZ is his country’s chief official when it comes to sensitive issues concerning foreign policy and national intelligence. His visit to the Turkish capital raises major questions about the possibility of a thaw in the confrontational relationship between the two countries. This idea has been reinforced by the observation that, immediately after the meeting ended, both Emirati and Turkish officials spoke optimistically of relations between their two countries.
Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, tweeted that “differences in points of views on some issues will not stand in the way of outreach and enhancing opportunities for stability, prosperity and development,” and that the Erdogan-TbZ meeting was “historic and positive.” One high-ranking Turkish official in Ankara also hailed the meeting as the “beginning of a new era” between the UAE and Turkey. Erdogan himself said that the ties between his country and the UAE were “improving”.
Why Dialogue Now?
It is important to realize that a more conciliatory tone between Abu Dhabi and Ankara has been observed since the beginning of the year. In January, Gargash stated that Abu Dhabi had “[no] problems with Turkey, like border issues.” Thus, according to Gargash, there was no basis for any geopolitical conflict between the UAE and Turkey. Such language marked a significant contrast from Gargash’s earlier words in October 2020, when he called the Turkish military presence in Qatar an “element of instability in the region”.
By March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu asserted that there was “no reason” for Turkey to avoid mending ties with the UAE, as long as the Emiratis would also take a “positive step.” These words from Cavusoglu also constituted a change in rhetoric from May 2020, when the foreign minister accused the UAE of “destabilizing” the Middle East and “bringing chaos” to the region, pointing specifically to Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Libya and Yemen.
This month’s meeting between Erdogan and TbZ occurred within the context of regional states recalibrating their foreign policies. Governments in the Middle East, many of which have been on hostile terms with each other in recent years, have faced pressure to resolve their problems in the face of a U.S. withdrawal from the region. These countries have not magically resolved all their outstanding conflicts of interest and ideational tensions. To their credit, though, they have opened doors for dialogue to cool temperatures and find some common ground. In addition to the improvements in Ankara’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the past year, the historic al-Ula summit in January 2021 which ended the blockade of Qatar, the beginning of Saudi-Iranian talks in April 2021, and Saudi Arabia’s cautious outreach to the Syrian government highlight this trend.
Indeed, the same factors which have prompted the Turks to take steps to improve ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia would similarly explain why Ankara has tried to reset its relations with the UAE. Much of the rationale is economic in nature: Turkey’s economy is facing major problems, and Ankara would welcome greater levels of investment from the Gulf states, including those which were angry at Turkey for supporting Qatar throughout the 43-month blockade. Officials in Ankara also have some concerns about their country suffering from relative isolation during a period in which Turkey’s alliance with the United States continues to face difficult challenges, meaning that Ankara is keen to improve its relations with more states in the region.
For its part, the UAE has its own reasons to worry about its position in the region, a position that could be strengthened with better relations with Turkey. As Yusuf Erim, a defense and security analyst at TRT World, argued, “the UAE has begun preparations for a post-American MENA and this first contact with Ankara is a smart investment in hedging its dependency on Washington.” Indeed, for years, Washington’s close partners in the GCC have become increasingly uncertain of the U.S.’s long-term commitment to their security. Recent events in Afghanistan, which the U.S. was widely accused of abandoning, will likely only result in more states around the world questioning America’s credibility as a superpower.
Similar dynamics appear to have driven TbZ to visit Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, Emir of Qatar, in Doha on August 26. Given the extent to which Emirati-Qatari relations have deteriorated since 2017, TbZ’s decision to visit the Qatari capital and meet with the country’s head of state was a sign that Abu Dhabi might be testing the waters for a rapprochement with Doha as well as Ankara.
The Upcoming Future
It would be foolish to confidently predict the future of Abu Dhabi-Ankara relations. What the August 18 meeting leads to in concrete terms remains to be seen, as there are high levels of animosity and distrust which have built up over the years. Due to the relative decline of U.S. hegemony, power vacuums have emerged in places such as Libya, where the Emiratis and Turks have backed opposite sides in that country’s conflict. In Syria, the UAE has done much to try to re-integrate Bashar al-Assad’s regime into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold—a development which Ankara would not welcome, especially considering that the UAE’s fears of Ankara’s agenda in the Levant have been a major factor driving Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bolster Syria’s government.
Mending bilateral ties will require much more engagement and dialogue between the two countries, both of which have governments that view the Middle East through extremely different ideological lenses. These differences are particularly acute regarding questions about the appropriate role for Islamists to play in Arab countries’ political systems. Ankara has a Muslim Brotherhood-friendly foreign policy while Abu Dhabi considers it a terrorist organization.
Nonetheless, an Emirati-Turkish rapprochement could help promote greater regional stability and thus should be encouraged by all parties including Washington. Other signs that the Erdogan-TbZ meeting are being built on would include new Emirati investments in Turkey, a cooling of the harsh rhetoric about the other side in the two countries’ media spheres, and a meeting between Erdogan and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.