Has Abu Dhabi crown prince’s visit to Ankara prompted Erdoğan to operate a foreign policy reset?

The recent visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to Turkey seems to have had a clear impact on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said on Monday that he would visit the UAE, Egypt and Israel. This, observers said, conveyed the impression of a foreign policy reset by the Turkish president.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince visited Ankara last week, making his first official trip to Turkey since 2012 and the highest-level visit by an Emirati official since relations between the two countries hit a low.

Analysts said the crown prince’s trip encouraged Erdoğan to shed some of his illusions and to put interests ahead of slogans.

They pointed out that during the visit, the UAE made promises of substantial investments in Turkey. Sheikh Mohammed also avoided directly blaming Ankara for its past hostility towards the Emirates.

The Turkish president announced on Monday that he intended to visit the UAE next February and said his country will take steps with Egypt and Israel, that are similar to those it is taking with the UAE.

It is not known what initiatives the Turkish president might produce to show his determination to shed the policies that have caused his country many problems and contributed to the severe economic crisis Ankara faces today. It remains to be seen, however, if and how he can regain the confidence of regional leaders.

The UAE is perceived by experts to have taken the initiative on rapprochement with Turkey. This is based on its own strategy of reducing problems with regional neighbours to the minimum in order to devote itself to national development projects. But other countries in the region will undoubtedly wait for clearer signals from Erdoğan over his regional agendas and his willingness to introduce sufficient confidence-building concessions with them.

Erdoğan is usually keen to suggest that overtures to other states such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, come at the request of the opposite side, not his.  This approach has cast doubt on the sincerity of his willingness to break out of the isolation into which he has thrust his country since the wave of “Arab Spring” protests.

“God willing, I will make a return visit to the UAE in February,” Erdoğan told journalists. He added, “They (UAE) put up a $10 billion investment plan. By putting this $10 billion into place, we will have built a very different future,” Erdogan was cited as telling reporters on a flight back from Turkmenistan, adding he would visit the UAE in February.

“Whatever kind of step was taken with the UAE, we will also take similar ones with the others (Israel and Egypt),” he said, in response to a question about ties with Tel Aviv and Cairo.

He pointed out that, “mutual talks have continued at the level of the intelligence services (between Turkey and the UAE), as did our commercial relations”.

Erdoğan voiced his confidence that the provisions of the agreement signed during the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown are a step towards a “new era” between Turkey and the UAE and maintaining it thereafter.

He said that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan will visit the UAE in preparation for his next UAE visit.

The coming period is expected to test the Turkish president’s intent to change course in dealing with regional issues. His visit to Egypt, if it takes place, will force him to provide clear answers regarding his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and whether he is willing to tell the Islamist organisation’s leaders, who turned the city of Istanbul into a headquarters for their regional activities, to leave and dismantle the financial and media networks they operate out of Turkey.

Analysts see his visit to Israel as providing him with another reality check.  Despite inflated rhetoric in defence of the Palestinians, Erdoğan has maintained strong security and intelligence cooperation with Israel. Business between Israeli and Turkish companies has also gone on unhindered.

The analysts add that Israel does not attach much importance to his statements about Jerusalem or Gaza, but follows closely the pace of his cooperation with Hamas and wants Ankara to close all Hamas offices on Turkish soil.

For many years, Turkish-Israeli relations have been based on separating economic bonds from politics.

Official data issued by the Statistics Institute and the Turkish Central Bank confirm that the economic relations and the volume of trade between Turkey and Israel have not been interrupted, but on the contrary have increased, as did the volume of direct investments between the two countries.

In 2020, Turkey exported $4.7 billion to Israel. This made Israel its ninth largest export destination.

In the first four months of 2021, Turkey’s exports to Israel rose to $1.85 billion, an increase of 35 percent compared to the same period last year.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission.)


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