As the world focuses on the US retreat from Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear situation, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have been quietly making decisions that could profoundly alter the Middle East.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, often referred to by his initials MBZ, discussed bilateral cooperation and regional stability during a phone call in late August, what may be an unprecedented exchange. On Twitter, Emirati Presidential Diplomatic Advisor Anwar Gargash stated that the discussion was positive and friendly, and was part of a larger effort to build bridges. Gargash later added that the Emiratis are actively working to avoid conflicts with Turkey and Iran and that they welcome changes in Ankara’s foreign policy — especially on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The public airing of the call came after months of smaller meetings. Steps towards reconciliation began in January after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) restored its relations with Qatar, paving the way for the UAE to renew relations with Doha’s biggest ally — Ankara. Following the summit, MBZ traveled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who also encouraged him to renew relations with Turkey. And Emirati National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan visited Erdogan on Aug. 18 — the highest-level public visit by an Emirati official to Turkey in years. Erdogan stated the two countries are improving relations and that reconciliation could lead to significant Emirati investment in Turkey.
On the surface, the rapprochement opens the door for increased economic cooperation that Turkey, in particular, needs desperately on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. Later in August, Abu Dhabi’s second most valuable company, International Holding Co., announced that it is seeking investment opportunities in Turkey’s healthcare and industrial sectors.
But beyond trade, the detente also could be a reaction to the new administration in Washington. Ankara recognizes that the Biden administration is not willing to give it nearly as much leeway as the Trump administration. Already Biden has enacted sanctions for Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, and Erdogan recently stated that ties with the US were not healthy. Abu Dhabi is responding to the Biden administration’s lackluster foreign policy performance in the region to date, including its lack of interest in the Abraham Accords, its withdrawal of US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and its botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Therefore, the two countries may be more willing to focus on areas of mutual concern. They still have to overcome or avoid some major ideological and geopolitical disagreements, including their opposite views of the Muslim Brotherhood and their support of opposing sides in conflicts like Syria and Libya.
It appears — at least for now — that Erdogan and MBZ are allowing economic opportunity to take center stage, while remaining publicly quiet on these hot-button issues.
Turkey has shown little sign of changing its stance in Libya, largely because it affords Ankara access to strategic military bases, reconstruction contracts that total an estimated $16 billion, and a highly contested maritime border deal that it gets only if the UN-supported Government of National Unity (GNU) stays in power. In fact, Ankara has even ignored calls to pull out its forces from the country, for fear that it could lose leverage or that rival Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Hifter could launch a new offensive.
On the other hand, the Emiratis — one of the LNA’s primary supporters — are now hedging their bets in the conflict and have begun publicly supporting the GNU. The change could related more to waning international support for the LNA than to growing relations with Ankara. In any event, with negotiations ongoing for national elections in Libya in December, it appears Ankara and Abu Dhabi will sit quietly there, at least for now.
While it is highly unlikely that Turkey and the UAE will resolve their deep ideological differences with America distracted elsewhere, these disputes might not stop these two rivals from working together, particularly as regional relationships become increasingly important.