Why Turkey and the UAE made peace faster than expected

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been known for his capacity to shift between being an ideological firebrand and a pragmatic politician throughout his two decades in power.

Erdoğan's ability to politically shapeshift was on full display last week during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, once among his most formidable rivals in the region.

Before arriving in Abu Dhabi, the Turkish president laid out high hopes of opening what he described as a new chapter in relations that would last well into the future. To sweeten his pitch, Erdoğan assured his former rivals that Turkey was no threat to their security and that his preference was to work together with them long into the future.

“With this visit, we aim to take the necessary steps that will allow our relations to gain even more momentum and once again reach the level that they deserve," Erdoğan proclaimed ahead of the trip.

"Dialogue and cooperation between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are important for the peace and stability of our entire region. We do not consider the security and stability of all the brotherly countries in the Gulf region to be separate from our own,” he said.

Many experts and officials alike were sceptical after Erdoğan first declared his intentions to seek better relations with key Middle East countries towards the end of 2020, given the amount of bad blood he cultivated in previous years. In the year since this agenda was announced, Turkey has offered olive branches to former foes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, yielding a mixed bag of progress towards warmer ties.

The speed of Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE has proven startling. Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical consultancy in Washington DC, said that he was surprised by the pace of Turkey’s normalisation with the UAE compared to Ankara’s other targets for better relations.

“Personally, I expected it to be easier and more likely for Ankara-Riyadh relations to warm than it would be for the Ankara-Abu Dhabi relationship,” Cafiero told Ahval News.

Cafiero’s comments are well-founded. Since the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East in 2011, Turkey’s relations with the UAE broke down along sharp ideological lines.

Erdoğan, a politician of the Islamist mould, seized on the protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in a bid for regional leadership among like-minded governments and political groups. The UAE recoiled at the unrest that came with the Arab Spring, viewing the Islamist movements, particularly those aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, as anathema to regional security.

The policy differences progressively developed into something of a Cold War between Turkey and the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia. Soon the tensions translated into proxy conflicts with the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, a Turkish ally, in May 2017 and an indirect military conflict in Libya, where Turkey and the two powers supported opposing sides in the civil war.

The acrimony was amplified by remarks by leaders on both sides. At one point, Turkish officials accused the UAE of supporting the failed July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan and of being the main source of destabilisation in the Middle East, in the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The UAE's former foreign minister Minister Abdullah bin Zayed likened Turkey to Iran, another regional adversary, accusing the two governments of plotting at “restoring their domination and colonial rule over the Arab region”.

But recently, each side has recognised the changing geopolitical winds in the Middle East and are coming to terms with their own limits. Qatar’s isolation came to an end in January 2021 thus freeing Turkey to pursue new relations across the Middle East without undermining its ties to its main regional partner. At the same time, the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan rattled powers in the region as the reliability of American commitment to their security came into doubt.

While in Abu Dhabi, Erdoğan’s emphasis on rebuilding economic ties with the UAE was of paramount importance to the Turkish side. Last year, Turkey was rocked by a currency crisis that eliminated 44 percent of the value of the Turkish lira, exasperating inflation and unemployment while breeding public disenchantment for Erdoğan’s economic management. The lira has steadied, but the Turkish leader hopes that new investment from the UAE and others in the region may help protect Turkey’s economy from further turmoil.

For its part, the UAE is recognising the broader geopolitical picture in the Middle East as hospitable for reconciliation with Turkey, Cafiero said.

The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned movements of the region have declined in strength since the Arab Spring, while Islamist-oriented governments in Tunisia and Sudan have been replaced by more secular, autocratic forces. A lull in Libya’s civil war has also dampened the need for hawkish policies from Abu Dhabi with talks underway to form a new government.

The retreat of the United States from Afghanistan further underscored the need to reconsider Emirati diplomatic and security strategies as doubts about U.S security guarantees persisted. Just as it has moved ahead with talks with Turkey, UAE emissaries have also reached out to Iran for discussions as part of its de-escalation strategy.

“The UAE is coming to terms with the limits of what it can gain from conducting a hawkish foreign policy,” said Cafiero.

“Abu Dhabi is taking stock of the fact that U.S influence in the Middle East continues to decline, making the UAE increasingly nervous remaining so dependent on Washington for its defence, which is a factor relevant to its quest to enter a new chapter in terms of its relationship with Turkey.”

Turkey too moved to realign itself with the changing strategic picture in the region, Caroline Rose, program head at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, told Ahval News in an e-mailed response to questions. After conducting a bellicose foreign policy in recent years, Erdoğan drove the UAE to find common cause with his other adversaries, including Greece and Cyprus as well as Israel.

This, said Rose, prompted Ankara to "change tack from its former posture" after recognising its increasing isolation. To break out of this, Turkey would move to “undermine and deconstruct” the informal web of alliances arrayed against it. In the case of the UAE, long its chief foe, differences in outlook between the two countries may not disappear entirely, but Rose explained that there may be enough incentives in place to keep tensions down for at least some time.

"I think that the economic and security incentives driving Turkish rapprochement with its counterparts in the Persian Gulf and, to an extent, in the Mediterranean, will override these tensions for some time as Turkey experiences economic stagnation and identifies new security challenges," Rose said. "I see this as a broader effort on part of Ankara to pivot from its former strategy."

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