On November 24th, 2021, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), visited Turkey for the first time in nearly ten years. Many hailed this development as a formal ending to the cold war between the two countries and the beginning of a new era in one of the Middle East’s most contentious bilateral relationships. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received the crown prince, commonly known by his initials MbZ, at the presidential palace in Ankara with an elaborate welcoming ceremony that included a cavalry procession.
The First Meeting in a Decade
The body language and gestures of the two leaders, who came face-to-face for the first time since the divisive 2013 military coup in Egypt, was quite positive. The cordial nature of the meeting was further buttressed by the signing of several investment accords, under which the UAE is expected to invest up to $10 billion in multiple sectors of the Turkish economy. These include important and necessary investments in energy, trade, security, health care, environmental protection, and technological development. Some of the accords also cemented cooperation to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as communication and coordination between the two countries’ stock exchanges and central banks. In order to consolidate this recent reconciliation, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that he would be travelling to Abu Dhabi in mid-December. This move is largely regarded as a preparatory voyage ahead of a potential visit by President Erdoğan in 2022.
The visit by the highest level of Emirati officials was foreshadowed by several developments in UAE-Turkey relations. In January 2021, then-Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash openly expressed Abu Dhabi’s desire to normalize relations with Ankara. In April, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart. Four months later, MbZ’s brother, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, visited Turkey in mid-August where he met with Erdoğan. Then, in August, MbZ and Erdoğan spoke over the phone. Despite these obvious signs of bilateral progress, the Erdoğan-MbZ meeting grabbed a remarkable amount of attention from the media, as well as from observers worldwide.
The regional implications of warming ties between the UAE and Turkey are profound, and mark a reversal of recent tensions over Abu Dhabi’s normalization with Israel. Indeed, relations between Turkey and the two Gulf signatories of the Abraham Accords—the UAE and Bahrain—have deteriorated in response to the Gulf states’ normalization of relations with Israel. A week before MbZ’s visit, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani travelled to Turkey, where he held talks with his Turkish counterpart on bilateral relations and regional and international developments. The back-to-back visits by the top officials of the two signatories to the agreement was crucial not only to bilateral relations but may also indicate a new phase in relations between Turkey and Israel. In the end, the climate of reconciliation between Turkey, the Arab countries, and Israel may have resounding consequences for regional stability.
Regional Repercussions of Rapprochement
In November, the UAE foreign minister visited Damascus, where he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This marked the first visit of a senior Emirati dignitary to Syria in the decade since the eruption of the civil war, in which the UAE supported opposition forces against the Assad regime. A month before this visit, MbZ discussed developments in Syria and the region with Assad in a phone call. This call and the visit—both symbolic gestures of engagement and important indicators of good faith—aimed to bring Syria back into the Arab League fold. The next Arab League summit in Algeria in March is expected to discuss restoring the membership of Syria. In 2018, Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus after seven years.
There is a general belief that the Gulf countries, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are willing to fund the reconstruction of Syria and are open to new investments in the country. Thus, they are treading lightly and taking pragmatic steps toward the eventual reintegration of Damascus into the regional system. The UAE is reportedly interested in mediating between Syria and Turkey. Ankara remains in control of parts of northwest and northern Syria, and Turkish involvement in Syria was one of the main sticking points in the Turkey-UAE relationship. It remains to be seen whether this rapprochement will result in concrete changes in the status quo on the ground in Syria.
One of the main questions raised was whether the Turkish-Emirati thaw will pave the way for the improvement of Turkey’s relations with Israel, which would help soften Ankara’s relations with the United States as well. The UAE is regarded both as a close partner to the U.S. and the closest Arab country to Israel. The UAE was the first Gulf country to sign the Abraham Accords alongside U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time of signing, Erdoğan reacted harshly to the deal, considering it a betrayal of the Palestinians. He went as far to say that he would consider suspending diplomatic ties with the UAE.
Productive diplomatic overtures between Turkey and Israel also helped set the stage for MbZ’s visit to Ankara. Erdoğan held rare, positive talks with both Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog and then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following Ankara’s release of an Israeli couple accused of spying. Erdoğan, whose personal involvement in the issue was seen as an indicator of improving relations between the countries, urged continued dialogue between the two countries. Turkey has also sought to mend ties with Egypt, a country that is close to both the Gulf states and Israel. Thus, Turkey’s conciliatory approach to Egypt and the UAE may open some new diplomatic and economic opportunities for Israel.
In contrast to the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Emirati relations, which plummeted dramatically after 2012, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia declined only gradually. Thus, it may be more realistic to expect a slow, incremental improvement of relations between Ankara and Riyadh. There exist specific obstacles to the immediate restoration of Turkish-Saudi relations. The first is related to the Jamal Khashoggi case, which is yet to be settled. Second is Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s competition for leadership within the larger Sunni Islamic world. Lastly, Saudi Arabia, which seemingly takes more cautious and slow steps towards Turkey, maybe awaiting crucial domestic elections to be held in Turkey in 2023, which may bring a change in political leadership.
Despite these headwinds, some positive developments have taken place that may indicate a future thaw in relations. A day after MbZ’s visit to Ankara, news broke of a meeting between top Turkish and Saudi officials in Istanbul. The Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay met with Saudi Trade Minister Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasabi, who is considered very close to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, on the sidelines of a conference held in Istanbul. Indeed, many observers see the UAE’s restoration of ties with Turkey as a move to counter economic competition in the country from Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, improved relations between Turkey and the UAE are only just beginning to bear fruit. Regional states, wary of diplomatic backsliding, must hedge and recalibrate their interests and approaches until the main disputes between Ankara and Abu Dhabi are resolved. Nevertheless, the recent détente may hold important implications on a regional level. The Turkish-Emirati thaw could have a transformational effect that could lend toward regional stability in the years to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.